Everyone—from beginning learners in English to veterans in journalism—knows the frustration of not having the right word immediately available in that lexicon one carries between one's ears. Sometimes it's a matter of not being able to recall the right word; sometimes we never knew it. It is also frustrating to read a newspaper or homework assignment and run across words whose meanings elude us. Language, after all, is power. When your children get in trouble fighting with the neighbors' children, and your neighbors call your children little twerps and you call their children nefarious miscreants—well, the battle is over and they didn't stand a chance. Building a vocabulary that is adequate to the needs of one's reading and self-expression has to be a personal goal for every writer and speaker.
Making It Personal :
Using some durable piece of paper—white construction paper or the insides of the ripped-off covers of old notebooks—begin to write down words in small but readable script that you discover in your reading that you can't define. Read journals and newspapers that challenge you in terms of vocabulary. Pursue words actively and become alert to words that you simply overlooked in the past. Write down the words in one column; then, later, when you have a dictionary at your disposal, write down a common definition of the word; in a third column, write a brief sentence using the word, underlined.
Carry this paper or cardboard with you always. In the pauses of your busy day—when you're sitting on the bus, in the dentist's office, during commercials—take out the paper and review your vocabulary words until you feel comfortable that you would recognize (and be able to use) these words the next time you see them. The amazing thing is that you will see the words again—even "nefarious miscreants," and probably sooner than you thought. In fact, you might well discover that the words you've written down are rather common. What's happening is not that, all of a sudden, people are using words you never saw before, but that you are now reading and using words that you had previously ignored.
Using Every Resource :
Most bookstores carry books on building a more powerful vocabulary, some of them with zany names such as Thirty Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary. If you've got money to spare or if they're on sale, buy them and use them; they can't hurt. Books that group words according to what they have in common — more in meaning than in spelling — are especially useful.
Newspapers often carry brief daily articles that explore the meanings of words and phrases. These articles often emphasize peculiar words that won't find themselves into your working vocabulary, but they can still be fun. Often you'll find that learning one new word leads to other new words, little constellations of meaning that keep your brain cells active and hungry for more. Make reading these articles one of your daily habits, an addiction, even.
Play dictionary games with your family in which someone uses the dictionary to find a neat word and writes down the real definition and everyone else writes down a fake (and funny) definition. See how many people you can fool with your fake definitions.
A thesaurus is like a dictionary except that it groups words within constellations of meaning. It is often useful in discovering just the right word you need to express what you want to say. Make sure you correctly understand the definition of a word (by using a dictionary) before using it in some important paper or report. Your bookstore salesperson can provide plenty of examples of an inexpensive thesaurus. The online Merriam Webster's WWWebster Dictionary has access to both an extensive dictionary and a hyperlinked thesaurus. Links allow you to go conveniently back and forth between the dictionary and the thesaurus.
If you have a speedy computer processor and a fast hookup to the internet, we recommend the Plumb Design Visual Thesaurus. Once the program is entirely loaded, type in a word that you would like to see "visualized," hit the return key, and a construct of verbal connections will float across the screen. Click on any of the words within that construct and a new pattern of connections will emerge. Try the Visual Thesaurus with several different kinds of words—verbs, adverbs, nouns, adjectives—and try adjusting some of the various controls on the bottom of the window. We do not recommend this web-site for slow machines; in fact, the bigger your monitor and the faster your computer and connection, the more satisfying this experience will be.
When people use a word that puzzles you, ask what it means! You'll find that most instructors, especially, are not in the least bothered by such questions—in fact, they're probably pleased that you're paying such close attention—but if they do seem bothered, write down the word and look it up later, before the context of the word evaporates.
Knowing the Roots :
At least half of the words in the English language are derived from Greek and Latin roots. Knowing these roots helps us to grasp the meaning of words before we look them up in the dictionary. It also helps us to see how words are often arranged in families with similar characteristics.
For instance, we know that sophomores are students in their second year of college or high school. What does it mean, though, to be sophomoric? The "sopho" part of the word comes from the same Greek root that gives us philosophy, which we know means "love of knowledge." The "ic" ending is sometimes added to adjectival words in English, but the "more" part of the word comes from the same Greek root that gives us moron. Thus sophomores are people who think they know a lot but really don't know much about anything, and a sophomoric act is typical of a "wise fool," a "smart-ass"!
Let's explore further. Going back to philosophy, we know the "sophy" part is related to knowledge and the "phil" part is related to love (because we know that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love and that a philodendron loves shady spots). What, then, is philanthropy? "Phil" is still love, and "anthropy" comes from the same Greek root that gives us anthropology, which is the study ("logy," we know, means study of any kind) of anthropos, humankind. So a philanthropist must be someone who loves humans and does something about it—like giving money to find a cure for cancer or to build a Writing Center for the local community college. (And an anthropoid, while we're at it, is an animal who walks like a human being.) Learning the roots of our language can even be fun!
Learning Prefixes and Suffixes :
Knowing the Greek and Latin roots of several prefixes and suffixes (beginning and endings attached to words) can also help us determine the meaning of words. Ante, for instance, means before, and if we connect bellum with belligerant to figure out the connection with war, we'll know that antebellum refers to the period before war. (In the United States, the antebellum period is our history before the Civil War.)
Using Your Dictionary :
The dictionary should be one of the most often used books in your home. (We'll allow room for sacred texts here.) Place the dictionary somewhere so that you can find it immediately and use it often. If you do your reading and homework in the kitchen and the dictionary is on a shelf in the den or bedroom, it's too tempting to say "I'll look it up next time."
The home dictionary should be large enough to contain much more than just spellings. It should contain extensive definitions, word origins, and notes on usage. Carrying in your purse or backpack a pocket dictionary with more concise definitions is also a good idea. Get in the habit of turning to it often. A well worn dictionary is a beautiful thing.
Using the Internet :
You can use the internet as an aid to vocabulary development by exploring the abundant opportunities for reading available on the World Wide Web. Capital Community College maintains an extensive list of online newspapers and commentary magazines. Choose magazines such as Atlantic and Mother Jones that challenge your mind and your vocabulary with full-text articles. At least once a week read a major article with the purpose of culling from it some vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to you. We also recommend the New York Times Book Review (which might require an easy, one-time, free registration).
Vocabulary University is a new online resource for working on groups of related vocabulary words in a puzzle format. Vocabulary U., a graphically rich Web site, is broken into beginning, intermediate, and college-level work. Vocabulary for English Language Learners is a treasury and nicely organized resources for ESL students. It is maintained by the College of Arts & Sciences of Ohio University.
There are also at least two services that send you an e-mail message every day with a new word—with definitions, pronunciation guides, and examples of its use. Get in the habit of reading these messages regularly. Print out the words and definitions you think will be really useful, or write them down and carry them around with you on your personal vocabulary builder.
Five-Dollar Words :
An extensive vocabulary can be a powerful writing and speaking tool; it can also be misused, made to make others feel powerless. Never use a five-dollar word where a fifty-cent word will do the job just as well or better. Do we really need utilize when a three-letter word, use, will nicely suffice. Risible is a lovely word, but is it worth sending your readers to the dictionary when laughable is at hand? It's a good question. On the other hand, don't cheat yourself or your readers out of some important nuance of meaning that you've discovered in a word that's new to you. At some point you have to assume that your readers also have dictionaries. It's sometimes a tough line to draw—between being a pedantic, pretentious boor (Oh, there are three dandies!) and being a writer who can take full and efficient advantage of the English language's multifarious (another one!) resources.