Word Knowledge Study Guide for the ASVAB

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General Information

The Word Knowledge section of the ASVAB test measures your knowledge of vocabulary. It is considered one of the four most important sections on the exam because the backbone of military operations is built on verbal and written orders. To have a successful military career, clear communication skills are a must, whether you are asking for supplies or applying for an advancement.

Parts of the Word Knowledge Exam

In this section of the ASVAB exam, you may encounter these two types of questions:

Straight Definition of a Given Word

These questions ask for the literal definition of a word. For example, the question might ask:

Cursory most nearly means ____.

  • hasty
  • forthright
  • exemplary
  • solid

The correct answer would be hasty because cursory means “not thought through or detailed.”

Note that in both kinds of word knowledge questions, you are asked to find the word that most nearly means the same. None of the answers may seem to be an exact match, but you must pick the one that is the best choice.

Meaning of Emphasized Word in Context

These questions ask you to decipher the meaning of a word as it is used in a sentence. The word may be underlined or italicized. In these questions, you are not looking for an exact definition but rather a similar or related word. For example, you might encounter an item like this:

Choose the word that means nearly the same as the italicized word in this sentence:

“Karen was feeling very melancholy that afternoon.”

  • happy
  • bummed
  • confused
  • sleepy

The correct option in this case would be bummed. It is not the exact definition of melancholy (which is defined as “a feeling of sadness with no apparent cause”), but it is the closest of the options presented.

Skills to Practice

Prefixes, Suffixes, and Roots

With thousands of words in the English language, one way to prepare for this part of the exam is to revisit some concepts you may remember from school: prefixes, suffixes, and roots. Focusing your energy on word parts may help you tackle words you have never encountered before.


A prefix is a part of a word that affixes to the beginning of a root word (defined below) to create a new meaning or change the overall meaning of the root. Although you may not know it, prefixes are common and may be found in everyday speech.

The most common prefixes include:

  • un- , as in unhappy (not happy)
  • re- , as in return (come back)
  • dis- , as in disgrace (loss of respect)
  • mis- , as in misuse (use incorrectly)
  • semi- , as in semiformal (somewhat formal)
  • anti- , as in antisocial (prone to avoiding socializing)

For example, if you know the prefix omni means all, you will have an easier time figuring out that the word omnipotent means all-powerful.


A suffix is the opposite of a prefix; rather than affixing to the beginning of a root word, a suffix is placed at the end of a root word to alter the root word’s meaning. The most common suffixes include:

  • -able, as in comfortable (able to feel comfort)
  • -ed, as in comforted (past-tense comfort)
  • -er, as in stronger (has more strength)
  • -est, as in strongest (has the greatest amount of strength)
  • -ful, as in beautiful (full of beauty)
  • -ing, as in singing (present tense of sing)
  • -less, as in fearless (without fear)
  • -ly, as in slowly (in a slow manner)
  • -ous, as in courageous (full of courage)

For example, if you have learned that the suffix or means “one who does a thing,” and you recognize the root word bene means “good,” the word benefactor becomes much easier to break down: good + someone who does something = a person who gives help or money to another person or cause (benefactor).

Root Word

Root words are words that are devoid of prefixes and suffixes and stand on their own in meaning. The word beautiful, for instance, contains the root word beauty. This word can stand alone and have its own meaning, but it can also be combined with suffixes and prefixes to create a new meaning.

Root words typically have either Greek or Latin origins, though a few come from Germanic languages. For instance:

The words morph and path have Greek origins and mean “form” and “feeling,” respectively. Each is seen commonly in the English language, in words such as mesomorph and empath.

The words arbor and aqua have Latin origins and mean “tree” and “water,” respectively, and can be found in words such as arborous and aqueduct.

Knowing the meaning of a root word and the most common prefixes and suffixes can lend tremendous insight into the overall meaning of a word or phrase.

If you can’t immediately spot the root word, try dropping a few of the letters from either the beginning or end. The root word cede means to “go or yield” and can plainly be found in the word recede by dropping the first two letters.

Using Context Clues

Context clues can help you discover the meaning of a word when you look at the text preceding and following the word in question. In the sentence, “Sandra’s demure nature made her popular with parents, teachers, and authority figures of all types,” it may be concluded that demure means modest, reserved, or well-behaved. This can be assumed based on the fact that adults (such as parents and teachers) enjoyed her presence―and adults are typically fond of children and teenagers who are quiet, obedient, and reserved.

If you do not understand the meaning of a word within a sentence, look at the surrounding sentence to see if you can determine overall meaning by its context.

Study Tips

There are other everyday ways to study for the Word Knowledge section of the ASVAB test.

  • Reading material that is just a touch more advanced than what you usually would (say an interesting section of the local newspaper instead of a fashion magazine) can help expose you to words you haven’t previously encountered.

  • If you hear a word you don’t know on TV or in conversation, write it down and look it up later.

  • Try and sneak the word into a sentence when you’re speaking. Even if you start laughing when you say it, you’ll remember it.

  • Crossword puzzles and other vocabulary games are another great way to study, and they can be especially fun and convenient if you have a smartphone or another electronic device.

  • Use either electronic or physical flashcards to help you practice word knowledge and definitions.

  • Practice identifying roots, prefixes, and suffixes in words you read or hear in everyday conversation. This will allow you to more readily identify these parts of words in your test.

No matter which study method you choose, don’t give up! Having a good grasp of word knowledge is important not only for the ASVAB but for life in general. The hours you spend studying for this section of the test will benefit you for years to come, so make the most of it.

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