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College Resource Center : Health Careers : Medical Assisting Study Aids : Analyzing New Terms

Analyzing New Terms

When you encounter an unfamiliar medical term, use the following steps to help you understand the term and make it part of your vocabulary. First, decipher the word parts in a different order for each type of term, and then determine by context whether the term is a surgical or pathological term, or an anatomical term.

Steps for Deciphering New Words

Sample word: Patient is a 13-year-old male with six-week history of polyuria.

For surgical and pathological terms:

  1. Scan the entire word to get a general idea of how the word parts and their definitions are related; poly- + uri- + -ia. Note that one i is dropped when the word parts are combined.
  2. Look at the contextual clues--information in the associated words and sentences--and use that information to help determine the word's general meaning. In this case the sentence context indicates that the word must mean some kind of disorder or problem.
  3. Determine the meaning of the suffix first, since surgical and pathological words usually involve some kind of action that is reflected in the suffix (for example, -ectomy means to surgically remove). You probably have previously memorized the common suffixes, so you will already know the meaning of the suffix: -ia means condition.
  4. Define the root word(s) or combining form(s): uri- means urine.
  5. Define the prefix, remembering that the prefix usually modifies the root word or combining form: poly- means many.
  6. Put the definitions of the parts together and look at the entire definition of the term. Recheck the definition with the contextual cues: polyuria could mean a condition of excessive urination.
  7. Pronounce the term out loud and memorize its spelling.

For anatomical terms:

  1. Scan the entire word to get a general idea of how the word parts and their definitions are related; poly- + uri- + -ia. Note that one i is dropped when the word parts are combined.
  2. Look at the contextual clues--information in the associated words and sentences--and use that information to help determine the word's general meaning. In this case the sentence context indicates that the word must mean some kind of disorder or problem.
  3. Determine the meaning of the root word. The central focus in anatomical terms is the body part, which is indicated by the root.
  4. Assess the meaning of the suffix.
  5. Define the prefix.
  6. Put the definitions of the parts together and look at the entire definition of the term. Recheck the definition with the contextual cues: polyuria could mean a condition of excessive urination.
  7. Pronounce the term out loud and memorize its spelling.


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