How to Find the Meaning of an Unknown Word on the ASVAB

By Rod Powers

The ASVAB contains a section that is essentially a vocabulary test. Many English words are created from building blocks called roots, prefixes, and suffixes. Not every word has all three, but many have at least one.

The prefix is the part that comes at the front of a word, the suffix is the part that comes at the end of a word, and the root is the part that comes in the middle of a word. Think of roots as the base of the word and prefixes and suffixes as word parts that are attached to the base.

If you don’t know the meaning of a word, you can often break it down into smaller parts and analyze those parts. For instance, introspect is made up from the root spect, which means to look, and the prefix intro, which means within. Taken together, introspect means “to look within.” Wasn’t that fun?

If you memorize some of these word parts, you’ll have a better chance of figuring out the meaning of an unfamiliar word when you see it on the Word Knowledge subtest — and that’s a good thing. Figuring out the meaning of unfamiliar words is how people with large vocabularies make them even larger. (They look up words in the dictionary, too.)

Roots

A root is a word part that serves as the base of a word. If you recognize a root, you can generally get an idea of what the word means, even if you’re not familiar with it.

As Mr. Miyagi said in The Karate Kid, “Root strong, tree grow strong.” All right, Daniel-san, in terms of your vocabulary, think of it this way: If your knowledge of word roots is strong, your vocabulary will be much larger.

Here are some common roots. Memorize them. When you sit down to take the ASVAB, you’ll be glad you did.

Root Meaning Sample Word
anthro or anthrop relating to humans anthropology
bibli or biblio relating to books bibliography
brev short abbreviate
cede or ceed go, yield recede
chrom color monochrome
circum around circumnavigate
cogn or cogno know cognizant
corp body corporate
dic or dict speak diction
domin rule dominate
flu or flux flow influx
form shape formulate
frac or frag break fragment
graph writing biography
junct join juncture
liber free liberate
lum light illuminate
oper work cooperate
pat or path suffer pathology
port carry portable
press squeeze repress
scrib or script write describe
sens or sent think, feel sentient
tract pull traction
voc or vok call revoke

Prefixes and suffixes

A prefix is a group of letters added before a word or base to alter the base’s meaning and form a new word. In contrast, a suffix is a group of letters added after a word or base. Prefixes and suffixes are called affixes because they’re attached to a root.

Here are some common prefixes. Each list has the word part, its meaning, and one word that uses each word part. Writing down additional words that you know for each word part can help you memorize the list.

Prefix Meaning Sample Word
a- no, not atheist
ab- or abs- away, from absent
anti- against antibody
bi- two bilateral
con- or contra- against contradict
de- away from depart
dec- ten decathlon
extra- outside, beyond extracurricular
fore- in front of foreman
geo- earth geology
hyper- excess, over hyperactive
il- not illogical
mal- or male- wrong, bad malnutrition
multi- many multifamily
non- not nonfat
omni- all omnivore
ped- foot pedestrian
que-, quer-, or ques- ask question
re- back, again replay
semi- half semisweet
super- over, more superior
tele- far telephone
trans- across transplant
un- not uninformed

Here are some suffixes that you should also commit to memory.

Suffix Meaning Sample Word
-able or -ible capable of agreeable
-age action, result breakage
-al characterized by functional
-ance instance of an action performance
-ation action, process liberation
-en made of silken
-ful full of helpful
-ic consisting of acidic
-ical possessing a quality of statistical
-ion result of act or process legislation
-ish relating to childish
-ism act, practice Buddhism
-ist characteristic of elitist
-ity quality of specificity
-less not having childless
-let small one booklet
-man relating to humans, manlike gentleman
-ment action, process establishment
-ness possessing a quality goodness
-or one who does something orator
-ous having dangerous
-y quality of tasty