Building Your Vocabulary

The difference between the right word and the almost right word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug.

—Mark Twain

Often times, we find ourselves groping for the right words to describe somebody or something, be it abstract or concrete. Unlike Shakespeare, we do not have the authority to coin new words to describe something that we cannot find the right word for (Shakespeare is known to coin new words whenever he can’t find the right words to use); thus, learning new words every day will help us build a better vocabulary and help us better express ourselves. Here are some few tips to better build your vocabulary.

Read. Okay, so it is undeniable that reading is the most effective way of building a better vocabulary. When we read, we see the words being used in context, and this method is even more useful that simply making a list of words and memorizing their definitions. You do not have to read so much to the point that you exhaust your brain; that will simply forfeit the fun in learning. However, it is wise to read materials of different genre because it will help you learn new words from different disciplines: literature, journalism, business, medicine, etc. Try to read one material from a different genre every day, and when you stumble and unfamiliar word, do not open the dictionary immediately. Try to read the surrounding text and guess the meaning, then, open the dictionary and see if you got it right.

Befriend the Dictionary. Sure, I mentioned not to check the dictionary immediately, but it does not mean that you do not need it. Always check the exact definition of a word you have read; never assume a definition to be right unless you want to embarrass yourself one day. It is also helpful to learn at least a word from the dictionary every day. Merriam-Webster Online and Oxford Dictionaries Online offers has a “word of the day” feature; you can use that to learn new words daily. Also, having an actual dictionary at hand can be helpful (either a book type or an app in your smart device, preferably online but offline may work just fine; I have one in my smart phone). When learning new words from a dictionary, do not just memorize the definition. Also remember how it is read, what syntactic class it belongs to (is it a noun, an adjective, a verb, etc.?), and how it is used in a sentence. It will also be useful to learn a word’s connotation and denotation.

Make Learning New Words Fun. A few weeks ago, I was in one of my favorite places to hangout (it’s a bookstore) when I noticed a new dictionary—the Merriam-Webster and Garfield Dictionary. In every page, there is a comic strip or two that uses one or more words in those pages. It was actually fun; I spent a few hours reading the dictionary and laughing. From the looks I got from the random people passing by, I could say they might have thought I was crazy. Who reads a dictionary and laugh like hell? What I am trying to say is that there are several ways to make learning new words fun. You can find several strategies online or you can make your own. Online dictionaries also offer games to help people learn new words in fun ways.

Use the Words You’ve Learned. You are learning new words so you can use them. Try to squeeze them in your daily conversation, but of course, do it in appropriate contexts and settings. Do not use it to simply brag; you’ll just sound as a highfalutin ignorant bastard in that case. Also, the words you’ve learned will be meaningless if you don’t use them; you can even lose them in the end. So either use them or lose them.

Understand the Words. By deeply understanding words, you can make your vocabulary grow exponentially. Instead of just memorizing words, try to really understand them by looking at their etymologyword rootsprefixes and suffixes. At least half of English words are derived from Greek and Latin roots, so there are enormous benefits in being familiar with them.

Just to pick an example, when you understand that the prefix “ortho” means straight or right, you start to find connections between seemingly unrelated words, such as orthodontist (a specialist who straightens teeth) and orthography (the correct, or straight way of writing).

Understanding the logic behind words always pays off in terms of learning and recalling. Consider the examples: “breakfast” meaning “interrupt the night’s fast” or “rainbow” meaning “bow or arc caused by rain.” While these meanings may be trivial to native English speakers, having such insights about words, foreign or otherwise, never fails to delight me.

Keep a Record. By keeping a personalized list of learned words, you’ll have a handy reference you can use to review these words later. It’s very likely you’ll want to go back and refresh your memory on recent words, so keeping them in your own list is much more efficient than going back to the dictionary every time.

Even if you never refer back to your lexicon again, writing words down at least once will greatly enhance your ability to commit them to your permanent memory. Another excellent learning aid is to write an original sentence containing the word—and using your lexicon to do that is a great way of enforcing this habit. You can also add many other details as you see fit, such as the date you first came across the word or maybe a sequential number to help you reach some word quota you define.

Different people have different ways of improving their vocabulary. The things above may help you, but it is always up to you to find or make an effective way to improve your word bank. However, in light with this topic, I have decided to come up with another feature of my blog. Every day, I will post a word that I deem unfamiliar to the general population. These are the words that I may not be familiar with or words I used to not know. With this, I hope to help several people expand their vocabulary as I expand mine.


45 thoughts on “Building Your Vocabulary

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