Remembering technical terms

To study effectively, you will need to learn and remember technical terms specific to your study. Discover quick rules and common principles that apply to the formation of most technical words in English.

Common components of technical words

Many technical words in English have their origins in Greek and Latin words. They are often made up of several components, and knowing these will help you to remember them or to work out their meaning. Technical terms often use prefixes and suffixes to provide additional information to a word.

Prefix – found at the beginning of a word

Its function is to elaborate, qualify or change the meaning of a word. For example:

PrefixMeaningExample Meaning
an- no, not, without anaerobic without air
ante- before antecedent existing before
bi- two bilateral two sides
hemi- half hemisphere half a sphere
macro- large macropod large foot

Suffix – found at the end of a word

It cannot be used alone, but when added after a word it completes the word. Its function is to form or change the meaning of the word.

Suffixes can indicate the type of word, for example ‘communicative is an adjective, ‘communicationis a noun, and ‘communicate’is a verb. They may also describe a state, quality, action or relation. For example:

SuffixMeaningExample Meaning
-itisinflammationdermatitis skin inflammation
-logy study ofanthropology study of the human race
-eragent/persontrainer person who trains
-ectomycutappendectomy removal of appendix

Building words

A base word usually has its own meaning and can stand alone, whereas prefixes and suffixes modify the word. For example, ‘cardiac’ is a base word meaning pertaining to the heart. When the prefix ‘myo’ is placed before it, as in ‘myocardium,’ the meaning can be read as muscle of the heart, or heart muscle.

As each discipline has its own terminology, try to obtain or develop your own comprehensive list of suffixes, prefixes and base words used within your area. If you learn the key prefixes, base words and suffixes for your discipline, you will be able to decode many of the technical terms you meet in your studies.

Noticing common word structures

There are often common ways of forming technical words in a discipline. While there are inconsistencies to general rules, knowing how technical words are usually structured can help you both learn and recall them.

For example, the following are typical word endings that indicate singular or plural.

SingularPluralExample - singular Example - plural
-a-aeone vertebratwo vertebrae
-on-aa protozoonmany protozoa
-is-esa hypothesisseveral hypotheses

Noticing how technical terms are classified

Each discipline may use its own way or ways of classifying its content, for example by systems, groups, time periods, theories or methods. Whichever way, main themes are often divided into smaller topics, followed by details and examples. The grouping of content usually follows rules or principles specific to the discipline. Knowing how your discipline groups its content helps you to locate technical terms in a meaningful context, making it easier to understand and recall them.

For example, biology uses the following groupings for describing organisms:

System Example (Human)

Similarly, medicine classifies information into functional body systems, such as the musculoskeletal, circulatory, respiratory, nervous and auditory systems. By contrast, an area such as music history may group its content chronologically around key periods: Medieval, Renaissance, Baroque, Classical and Romantic. There’s usually a core terminology associated with each group, which serves as a reminder of what should be included.

Consolidating your learning

Create your own lists of terms

List words that you are not familiar with but need to know and put some time and effort into learning them. There may be many specialised lists compiled by others, but by compiling your own, you identify the terms you specifically need to know.

Once you have mastered these words, move them to a list of words that you know and work on new, unfamiliar words.

Use different ways to learn new terms

Develop learning strategies that work for you. Remember, the more senses you use in learning new words, the better chance you have of remembering them.

For example, you may make a flashcard for each word or create visual maps of related words, which can include a range of information about the words. These activities help you to learn new terms by writing, reading and visualising them. You can also use games, such as crossword puzzles or quizzes, to learn your words. Using the words verbally, for example by talking with friends, can further assist the learning.

Final tip

Practise and use newly learnt words as often as you can, as this will help you to remember and apply them better. Use them when you think, speak, read and write about your academic work.

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