Building Your Vocabulary

Improving your vocabulary will help you:

  • Read textbooks more quickly and with better understanding.
  • Improve your performance on entrance exams for graduate school.
  • Write in a more sophisticated style.

Determine the level of understanding you need:

  • To prepare for the GRE, you may need only a vague understanding of the word, sometimes simply a sense of whether the word has a positive or negative connotation.
  • To improve your reading speed and efficiency, you will need to achieve a fairly clear understanding of a word's meaning.
  • To improve your writing or speaking, you will need to focus on nuances of meaning, as well as commonly occurring phrases. For example, deign almost always occurs with to and involves condescending to do something: The company has not deigned to respond.

Ways to improve your vocabulary:

  • Take a class: Take Classics/Linguistic 201 or ASP 092. The ASP 092 course meets for the first eight weeks of the semester, and one section each spring is usually reserved for students preparing for graduate entrance exams.
  • Buy a vocabulary book: Look for a book that contains helpful exercises and the kinds of words you would like to learn. To increase the probability that you will actually use the book, partner with a friend to work your way through it, setting specific goals each week.
  • Read more and keep a dictionary nearby. Reading widely is the most effective and natural way to improve your vocabulary. However, don't stop to look up every unfamiliar word as you encounter it or you will lose track of the content. If you are able to guess at the meaning from the context, simply circle the word and look it up later. Of course, you should stop to check your dictionary during your reading when the meaning of an entire paragraph is unclear.
  • Buy two dictionaries: Keep a quality dictionary at home, but also get something to keep in your backpack – either a portable dictionary or an application on your electronic device. Vocabulary is best learned a little bit at a time, so having something portable will enable you to do a quick check of a word while you're sitting in lecture, waiting for the bus, or reading in the cafeteria.
  • Pay attention to word parts: Learn Greek and Latin roots or simply pay attention to word parts and use that to guess at meaning. When encountering a new word, ask yourself if part of the word is already familiar to you. For example, when you encounter epidemiology, you might think of epidemics and also that ology means study of – as in sociology and psychology. You will then guess correctly that epidemiology means "the study of epidemics."
  • Devote a day to learning a group of synonyms: For example, write up a list of words meaning "difficult to understand" and spend the day learning them: enigmatic, esoteric, inscrutable, obscure, opaque. Be sure you understand the subtle differences in meaning and usage.
  • Subscribe to a service that will e-mail a new word to you each day. One service is available at Merriam-Webster.

Strategies for remembering new words:

  • Say the word aloud several times: Saying the word aloud, especially along within a short phrase, will help you remember it. Learn how to use the pronunciation guide in your dictionary. If English is not your native langue, ask a native speaker to pronounce new words or purchase an electronic dictionary that includes sound.
  • Tie new words to old: When you encounter a new word, think of a method for recalling the meaning. This will often involve using a word you already know. For example, I might tie the meaning of non sequitur to sequence and then recall that a non sequitur is a remark that doesn't follow logically or in sequence.
  • Embed the word in a phrase that will help you recall both the meaning and how it should be used. For example, to learn the word corroborate, you might think of the phrase “This corroborates his testimony.”
  • Use rhyming and other mnemonic devices: For example you might use the rhyme "Rain is the bane of my existence."
  • Use visualization: For example, to recall that draconian means harsh and extreme, think of a draconian punishment and then visualize Dracula biting someone's neck for missing class.
  • Write vocabulary cards or create a list of words on your portable device: This is perhaps the most tried and true method for increasing vocabulary, and it does work. Keep a stack of cards in your pocket and whenever you hear or read a new word, write it on a card. If there's time, also write the sentence in which you encountered the word (on the reverse side). Set aside a few minutes each day to look up the words and to write the definition in your own words (record this on the same side of the card as the sentence). If you're using a portable device, create two columns, with the new words in one column and the meaning in the other. Periodically quiz yourself over the words.
  • Use your new words: Warn family and friends that you're trying to improve your vocabulary and then drop new words into your conversations, trying to maintain a sense of humor about this. (If you don't warm your friends, they might accuse you of becoming a snob.) Vocabulary should not be learned in complete silence.
  • Review, review, review: You can't expect to learn a new word and never forget it. Periodically go back over words you've learned and quiz yourself. Flag the words you missed and review them again.

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