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”.

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