How to improve your vocabulary

2011-02-22 in English, Grammar, Vocabulary

Page from the vocabulary journal I used in college.

I’ve been a teacher now for just about two decades, and one of the most commonly-asked questions is How can I learn more vocabulary words? I hear various comments over and over: I can’t remember the words I learn, I don’t know a lot of the hard vocabulary words that I see in my reading, I don’t know most of “the SAT vocabulary words”, and on and on and on. So, how to build your vocab? I’ll have to be honest–it’s not easy, nor is it quick. But it’s entirely doable. And for those of you in a hurry, here’s the simple solution: Read a lot. Use a dictionary. Look up words. Be inquisitive. Think about what you’re doing. Take notes. Write lots of things down. Understand that knowledge is acquired in a myriad of ways, and as a learner, you should try to acquire new knowledge using a good number of different methods. There is a place for memorization, of course, but generally, it’s best to learn in context, while you’re doing something, reading something, or learning something. It’s important to hear things, to see things written, to see things done, to say things, to struggle to write. It’s all important, and it all contributes to your learning.

And now the long answer. When I was studying English literature in college, I found that I was almost daily presented with new vocabulary words that I had never seen before (or at least couldn’t remember seeing before, but more on that later), much less knew the definition of. I’m not embarrassed to say that in college, I didn’t know the words balustrade (a type of handrail), gainsay (to dispute), dun (to ask for payment, a word that has become one of my favorites), or dissemble (to deceive). I didn’t know the words, and I was tired of seeing words I didn’t know; it’s a very disempowering feeling not to be able to understanding something that you read, but it’s a feeling that many of us don’t need to become accustomed to. So I set a goal for myself–to learn every word that I possibly could. I decided that I’d do whatever was necessary to improve my vocabulary, at least within my limitations. (Meaning I wasn’t going to cram vocab words all day and all night; I was looking for natural, gradual improvement.)

A quick note: In this article, I discuss one way to learn vocabulary, but not necessarily the only way. The only time I will mention flashcards or mnemonics, for example, is in this very sentence.

1. Buy a good (English) dictionary

Your dictionary will be your primary tool, so choose this carefully. Don’t worry about price too much, but choose a dictionary that you like. There is actually a lot more to choosing a dictionary than a lot of people realize, so I wrote up a review of various English dictionaries, which you will want to read if you’re serious about getting a great English dictionary. (Yes, I realize that I probably get more excited about dictionaries than do most people). Read the rest of this entry →

What does “pitfall” mean? (+ a short quiz!)

2011-01-12 in Vocab

Watch out for pitfalls!


What does “pitfall” mean?

Part of Speech: noun

Pronunciations: IPA: /’pɪt.fal/ Glossary-style: [PIT-fahl]

Definition: a danger, difficulty, or problem that can arise unexpectedly (Ex: the pitfalls of applying for a job). a covered hole in the ground used as a trap.

Example: One of the pitfalls of excelling in a particular subject is becoming labeled an expert in that subject, often causing others to overlook your other qualities and talents.

Practice vocab question for “pitfall”

1. Of the following, which describes a possible pitfall of applying to college?
(A) Many of your friends, who have excellent GPAs and SAT scores, are applying to the same colleges and universities that you are.
(B) You need to fill out a common application as well as write several supplementary essays.
(C) When you submit your application, you submit your rough draft instead of the final version of your personal statement.
(D) When your acceptance letters arrive, you discover that you are offered a four-year, full scholarship at your second choice, before you hear the result from your first-choice.
(E) You have important insights into your character while writing your admissions essays.

2. pitfall most nearly means
(A) comprehension or understanding
(B) area of land devoid of vegetation, especially in a jungle
(C) sudden realization
(D) unexpected difficulty
(E) prevention


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What does “fetid” mean? (+ a short quiz!)

2011-01-11 in Vocab

We can only hope that Oscar enjoys the fetid smells of the town dump


What does “fetid” mean?

Part of Speech: adj

Pronunciations: IPA: /ˈfɛ.tɪd/ Glossary-style: [FEH-tid]

Definition: having an extremely bad smell.

Example: The fetid smells of the rotting food were so strong that no one could enter the kitchen.

Practice vocab question for “fetid”

fetid most nearly means
(A) humorous
(B) offensive
(C) florid
(D) stinky
(E) rueful


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What does “bohemian” mean? (+ a short quiz!)

2011-01-07 in Vocab

Many would consider Bob Dylan (left) and Allen Ginsberg (right) bohemians (even though they were both quite financially successful).


What does “bohemian” mean?

Part of Speech: noun

Pronunciations: IPA: /boʊ.ˈhi.mi.ən/ Glossary-style: [bo-HEE-mee-un]

Definition: noun: someone who is from or lives in Bohemia (a historical region located in the present-day Czech Republic in central Europe). someone who is unconventional, especially in lifestyle or appearance (Ex: young bohemians struggling to make a living).
adj: unconventional, especially in lifestyle or appearance (Ex: bohemian artists).

Example: When I think of “bohemians,” I think less of the Czech Republic than I do of young people who live in such cities as Paris or New York City and have dreams of living in an ideal world in which people value art and creativity and don’t stereotype others.

Practice vocab question for “bohemian”

A bohemian (note the lower-case b), would be most likely to
(A) imbibe copious amounts of malt beverages
(B) seek physical pleasure above all else
(C) make an ostentatious show of his knowledge
(D) eschew monetary success so that he could pursue his passion for writing poetry
(E) avoid contact with people


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