How to improve your vocabulary

Here’s a joke that was doing the rounds on the Internet sometime back:

Two trucks loaded with thousands of copies of Roget’s Thesaurus collided as they left a New York publishing house last Thursday, according to the Associated Press.

Witnesses were aghast, amazed, astonished, astounded, bemused, benumbed, bewildered, confounded, confused, dazed, dazzled, disconcerted, disoriented, dumbstruck, electrified, flabbergasted, horrified, immobilised, incredulous, nonplussed, overwhelmed, paralysed, perplexed, scared, shocked, startled, stunned, stupefied, surprised, taken aback, traumatised, upset….

While its humour is subtle and the piece may not classify as one guaranteed to have you split your sides, it is quite an appropriate opening for this article on Vocabulary building since it takes you through the ‘vocab’ areas that are usually seen in competitive exams – ‘synonyms,’ ‘closest in meaning,’ and ‘appropriate substitute in the context’.

For those who may ask why language teaching places such stress on this area – good vocabulary helps, not only in improved performance in the VA sections of exams, but in greater enjoyment of the language and in effective communication as well. As the writer Johnson O’Connor puts it – “[Words] are the instruments by means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought.”

Building a better vocabulary can, therefore, be a pleasurable and profitable investment of both your time and effort. At least 15 minutes a day of concentrated study on a regular basis can bring about a rapid improvement in your vocabulary skills. This will, in turn, increase the effectiveness of your spoken and written communication. You will also understand others’ ideas better. Overall, you would gain – at college, at work, and socially.

Many of the words you already know were probably picked up as you came across them while reading, in conversation, perhaps even while watching television. You may already know thousands, and you may continue to learn more whether you work at it or not. Consider this, though – if you learned only one new word a day for the next three years, you would have about a thousand new words in your vocabulary, whereas, if you learn ten new words a day, in one year you would have added over three thousand words to what you already know, and you would also have gained a lasting habit of learning and self-improvement.

There are no shortcuts to vocabulary improvement. However, as you learn new words, it will be easier  to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. As such, your learning speed will increase even as your vocabulary grows.

Let’s look at the most effective steps you can take.

Read, and be aware of words. Folks with low vocabulary levels don’t enjoy reading. It’s probably more of a task than a pleasure because they don’t understand many of the words. If this applies to you, try reading easier matter. Newspapers are usually easier than magazines, and a magazine like Reader’s Digest is usually easier to read than, say, The Economist. It’s important to find things that you would enjoy reading, and to read as often and as much as possible, with the idea of learning new words always in mind.

Reading alone may not be enough to help you learn new words. When you read a novel, for instance, you must curb the desire to get on with the story and skip over unfamiliar or perhaps vaguely known words. While the totally unknown words stand out (each one like a sore thumb), you have to be especially aware of words that seem familiar to you but whose precise meanings you may not know. Take a closer look at such words. First, try to guess at a word’s meaning from its context – that is, the sense of the passage in which it appears; second, if you have a dictionary on hand, look up the word’s meaning immediately to confirm or correct your understanding. While this may slow down your reading speed initially, the improved understanding of each new word will eventually make reading easier and faster. (You could follow these steps even with words that you come across when you’re listening to the radio, talking to friends, or watching television.)

Read whatever interests you. If magazines or illustrated books are your choice, read them, don’t just look at the photographs. Reading and awareness of words will help you find most of the words you should be learning. It is also the best way to check on words you have already learned.

Use a Dictionary. The dictionary should be one of the most often used books in your home. Keep it where you can find it readily and use it often. If you do your reading and homework in the dining  room or drawing room and the dictionary is on a shelf in the bedroom, you’re less likely to use it.

The home dictionary should be large enough to contain much more than just spellings! It should contain extensive definitions, word origins, notes on usage, and examples.

Get into the habit of reading the entire entry for the word you look up. Remember, words can have more than one meaning, and the meaning you need for the word you are looking up may not be the first one given in your dictionary. Even if it is, the other meanings of the word will help you understand the different ways the word is used.

Also, the word’s “history”, usually given at the end of the entry, can often give you a fascinating picture of the way the word has developed its current meaning. This will add to the pleasure of learning the word as well as help you remember it.

In addition:

(a)   You could also start referring to a Thesaurus, which carries groups of words within overall meanings.

(b)   When you come across a word that puzzles you, ask what it means, or write down the word and look it up later, before the context of the word evaporates.

Refer to vocabulary-building aids (books, etc.). These can effectively supplement the efforts you make through the first two steps discussed above. The  advantages of such materials are that (i) they present you with words generally considered important to know, thus saving you time, (ii) they use the words in several sentences, so that you can see the words in different contexts, and (iii) they usually have exercises that test what you have learned.

Use the Roots-Prefixes-Suffixes method. Many books approach vocabulary building by teaching you word ‘parts’ – roots, prefixes, and suffixes – and showing you how these parts can go together to form different words. You will find this approach useful, because it helps you understand how several words are formed (at least half of the words in the English language are derived from Greek and Latin roots), and this can often be of help in figuring out a word’s meaning from its context.

Let’s consider the examples of a few familiar words: Let’s start with ‘philosophy’. Simply put, ‘phil’ is the Greek root for ‘love’, while ‘sopho’ is the Greek root for ‘knowledge’. Thus we have ‘love of knowledge’. When we come across other words with the same roots, we can make a reasonably good assessment of what they could mean.

We could follow the ‘phil’ connection to ‘philanthropy’. Since ‘anthrop’ is the root for ‘man’ or ‘humans’, we understand that the word means ‘love of man’ or ‘humaneness’. Taking this further, we could consider ‘anthropology’. Since any ‘ology’ is the set of truths obtained through study, we understand that the word means the study of mankind. And so on…

Test yourself with games and puzzles. Try your hand at Boggle and Scrabble, games which are good fun and help you learn and use new words. In Scrabble, the excitement of using all your (seven) letters to complete an eight-letter word that covers two triple word score squares and includes high-score letters is comparable to that of finding a small fortune in the pocket of your oldest, long-forgotten jeans! Try the crosswords in the newspapers, as well. There are all kinds – easy to tough.

Use the Internet. There are thousands of sites on the Web that help the ‘vocab’ enthusiast, including many free sites that mail you a word a day, a vocab tip a day, and so on – apart from those that have tests, puzzles, and word games.

Perhaps the most important factor in successful vocabulary building, however, is self-motivation. A larger vocabulary will help you in academics and at work. This is absolutely true. Believe this, stay keen, and look at adding to your word bank constantly. Your time could not be better spent.

Do you Know

Resign has opposite meanings but is pronounced differently in each case (“to quit” and  “to sign again”).

The term “dog days” has nothing to do with dogs. It dates back to Roman times, when it was believed that Sirius, the Dog Star, added its heat to that of the sun from July 3 to August 11, creating exceptionally high temperatures. The Romans called the period dies caniculares, or “days of the dog”.

How to increase reading speed

When the editor asked me whether I’d like to contribute a piece on ‘Enhancement of Reading Speed’, to this special edition, I said I’d be happy to. Not because it gives me a chance to expand some imagined sphere of personal influence, but because it gives me (a True Believer) an opportunity to spread The Word, to proselytise!

And, in case you didn’t know what it was, here’s The Word, reproduced in the same script that the Holy Books present it in. (For best effect – when you read it, imagine that it resounds in the skies above, in the deepest possible Amitabh Bachchanesque voice accompanied by rolling thunder and flashes of lightning!)

There is only one road to assured success in the Verbal Reasoning segment of the CAT (or any other admission or aptitude test) – READING!

I know what some of you would say: “It’s all very well to sermonise, and you’re not telling me anything that I didn’t know, or haven’t already been told. But how, actually, is it to be done?”

Well, here’s something that I hope will help. There is a rider, of course – this is a long note (and your first step towards comfort with reading is to read without worrying about the length of the piece you’re reading!).

Let’s first get our thinking straight on this business of speed, through an analogy: you’re inspired by Usain Bolt, and you’d like to emulate his achievements. So, do you train to be a bolt of lightning right away, or do you first develop your ability to run? (And that’s meant to be a rhetorical question!)

At the risk of sounding repetitive – you get to enhanced reading speed through effective reading; it is not the other way around! It’s familiarity with reading that gives you speed. So, work on improving your understanding of what you read, and you will automatically benefit from improved speed.

Here are my suggestions on how to deal with ‘speedbreakers’.

Let me clarify, however, that (since the CAT of ’16 is almost upon us) the suggestions are meant, primarily, for those who are preparing for the CAT (and similar exams) of 2017. For those of you who are appearing for CAT ’16, who’ve reached the point where your speed may not be the issue, but accuracy is, the portion on ‘RCs online’ may be of some help.

Inadequate vocabulary. Do not be discouraged by words you do not know. While reading, do not guess at the meaning of a word unless you have to. Look it up in a good dictionary. When you’ve understood the meaning of the word, put it back in the sentence to confirm your understanding of the context, and to recognise the structural elements – prepositions, conjunctions, relative pronouns – that connect that word to the others in the sentence. (Please remember that ‘word’, here, means anything that represents a thought, whether in a single word, a phrase, a figure of speech, an idiomatic expression, or an allusion!)

Absence of familiarity with grammatical tools. Frequent and careful reading will enable you to recognize the parts of speech and grammatical tools that you have learnt about, their functions, and their relationship with each other within a sentence. When you come across sentences that you find difficult to understand, try to break them down into their main clauses and subordinates. Understand these bits and how they’re connected. You will be able to interpret sentences and ideas better this way.

Inability to establish the links between ideas. While reading, pay attention to the way connectors (words and phrases like ‘consequently’, ‘subsequently’, ‘on the one/other hand’, ‘although’, and ‘similarly’) are used. You will gain familiarity with the way ideas are linked through these simple tools. Pay attention to the context as you read. You will recognize the importance of each idea, its place in the context, and the possibilities that emanate from it. This will enable you to understand the idea-flow. Reasoning ability helps you distinguish between information and opinion, and recognize the flow of an argument or presentation.

Tedious reading (one word at a time). Regular reading will help you develop the ability to anticipate thought groups within a context by recognizing clues in a sentence. (For example, prepositions are almost always followed by two or more related words and, together, they form a thought group. If one were to read a few lines relating to something within a house or room, phrases such as on the floor, by the door, in the corner would be easily anticipated and recognized, within that context.) This way, ‘reading in thoughts’ and not in individual words, you will pick up ideas, and understand their interconnections smoothly.

Putting these suggestions on ‘basics’ together, you realise that, when reading, you should make an effort, through active reading, to

(i)    identify grammatical tools and their use;

(ii)   pay attention to new words and phrases, refer to a good dictionary to learn about these words and phrases and their uses and (with a thesaurus) identify other words and phrases with similar meanings, and

(iii)  recognize opinions and viewpoints, and identify the reasons for them.


It’s also important to pay attention to style and tone. The style of a piece of writing is the way in which ideas are connected and organised. From the style of writing, one can often draw some understanding of the author’s purpose.

Tone is the sense that one draws from a piece of writing of the author’s attitude to, and interest in, the subject of the piece – in other words, the author’s way of looking at his subject. A piece of writing may go through changes in tone, depending on the manner in which the author would like to present the ideas and the significance that they serve in his overall purpose.

It is important to understand style and tone. Since they indicate purpose and attitude, they help you look at the content from the author’s point of view – thereby improving your comprehension.

As a first step, try to develop familiarity with identifying the organisation or ‘physical structure’ of content that you read, especially with reference to passages. This is, usually, as follows:

The Essentials:

  • Any essay or article is put together by an author to provide the reader with a certain picture, a certain viewpoint, a certain understanding – the Central Idea (or Theme or Focus).
  • This Central Idea is a composite of different ideas or Key Ideas, provided in a certain sequence.

Supporting features:

  • Incidental ideas are sometimes provided, which may embellish the key ideas, but may not add much to the Central Idea.
  • Examples are sometimes provided, to illustrate one or more of the key ideas.
  • Quotations, where they appear, also serve the same purpose that examples do.
  • Ideas may sometimes be repeated for emphasis.


  • It is the sequence of presentation of the essentials and supporting features, and the way they are linked, that enables an author to deliver the Central Idea effectively. (In other words if the key ideas are not in an appropriate sequence the Central Idea may not come through clearly.)
  • Normally, an author deals with a key idea (or an idea set) in a paragraph and then moves on, to the next idea/set in the following paragraph, and so on.
  • It is usually possible, therefore, to identify the key idea in each paragraph, the connection to the next, and the manner in which the entire presentation has been strung together, paragraph by paragraph.

Critical Reading (or Active Reading)

In the examinations, indirect questions and inference-based questions are often asked, that require you to read between the lines, understand implications, and draw inferences from the logical flow of the content. Therefore, in addition to developing a good reading habit and improving on your reading, you should also focus on active reading – often referred to as Critical Reading.

Recognize what the lines say. Then reflect on what the lines do, in their paragraph, and overall. Infer what the text, as a whole, means, based on your analysis. This process is easier when you can, from the evidence within the text, recognize an author’s (i) purpose and (ii) attitude.

With regular (and careful) reading practice, you will develop the ability to interpret, comfortably and accurately, whatever you read, including essays, articles and RC passages.

Enhanced Reading Speed is the direct result of this comfort and accuracy.

Try to spend at least 45-60 minutes, each day, on general reading, and try to implement these suggestions. Remember, when you are reading something that you find heavy, it helps to balance that with something that you find comfortable (such as a novel by a favourite author). So, you read some of the heavy stuff, and some of the comfortable stuff each day. The combination will help you develop an interest in general reading, apart from helping with language skills.

You get the idea? Now, get cracking!

Here’s something (perhaps a little extreme?) to get you started:

Most of our wheel-borne CAT students, constantly aware of their cellphones, which can’t be switched off, of the obstacles in traffic (such as buffaloes ambling along the unpitted parts of the road and septuagenarians driving or riding at sedate speeds), of traffic cops armed with cameras and palm-tops (when they’re not engrossed in contemplation of one or the other kind at roadside tea stalls) and of pedestrians who clearly believe they’re skilled at throwing dice, and troubled by vehicles that belch fumes impartially, by drivers and riders who believe that honking is an effective substitute for brakes and for road manners, and by traffic lights that clearly do not work in teams, have their work cut out every time they find their way to class and can therefore be forgiven for the glassy stares that they go through class with.


Main Idea?



Possibilities of further discussion?

And, to close, some suggestions for speed with RCs online:

Since you won’t have a test-paper that you can make marks or underline words/lines on, you should substitute that habit with one of quick note-making. This will serve the same purpose that marking would have: you will remember key words and thoughts, and since you have the sequence down on paper, you won’t have difficulty (scrolling up and down) in identifying the parts you want to re-read.

For example, if the following were the first two paragraphs of a passage: “The emerging new theory of living systems is the theoretical foundation of ecological literacy. Instead of seeing the universe as a machine composed of elementary building blocks, scientists have discovered that the material world is ultimately a network of inseparable patterns of relationships, that the planet as a whole is a living, self-regulating system. The view of the human body as a machine and of the mind as a separate entity is being replaced by one that sees not only the brain but also the neural system, the bodily tissues and even each cell as a living, cognitive system.

Evolution is no longer seen as a competitive struggle for                 existence but rather as a co-operative dance in which creativity and the constant emergence of novelty are the driving forces. This new vision of reality informed by eco-literacy will form the basis of our future technologies, economic systems and social institutions. Either that or there will be no future for humanity. It is obvious that this has profound implications for education in the 21st century. It will require a pedagogy that puts the understanding of life at its very centre, in the experience of learning that overcomes our alienation from the natural world and rekindles a sense of praise, a curriculum that teaches our children the fundamental facts of life: that one species’ waste is another species’ food; that matter cycles continually through the chain of life; that the energy driving all the ecological cycles flows from the sun; that diversity assures resilience; that life from its beginning of more than 3 billion years ago did not take over the planet by combat but by networking.”

Quick notes would be something like:

  1. eco literacy – new theory of liv systuniv not mchn-like but netwk of reltnshp so also humn bod
  2. evol not compt but coop depnds on creatvt n novlt idea shd be pt of teachn n learnn fcts supptng this idea

In the exam, run through the question lines related to each passage. This will give you a rough idea of the content of the passage, and of the types of questions. (In the case of the CAT, review, prioritise in order of relative comfort, and attempt). Read through the passage picked, quickly but carefully and completely, making notes as suggested. This will get you the (i) organisation of the passage, (ii) the key ideas and thought-flow, (iii) the central idea, (iv) the style, and (v) the tone. You may then be able to answer questions on these aspects, if any. For the other questions, you may require careful re-reading – the notes you make will help you identify, quickly, the parts that you want to re-read (from a little above to a little below). Consider meanings, implications (through vocabulary, grammar and structure), possible assumptions and possible derivations.

I hope all this helps. Don’t forget, however, that the more you read the faster and better you get! All the best!