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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 →

Identifying sentence errors: In a lawsuit…

2010-09-08 in English, Grammar, Vocabulary, SAT Prep

Try this practice SAT question:

In a lawsuit involving a woman whose nightgown and robe were ignited by an open-flame gas heater, the United States Court of Appeals held that that accident did not violate existing statutes and that their complaint was therefore moot. No error

The best answer is Click to show

Do already know the word moot? If so, great! If not, click here to learn more about the word moot.

Definition and examples of the word “moot”

2010-09-08 in English, Grammar, Vocabulary

Word: moot

Part of Speech: adj noun

Pronunciations: IPA: /mut/ Glossary-style: [moot]

Definition: adj: having no practical importance; being only a mental exercise (Ex: a moot discussion). open to debate; arguable.  noun: (Law) a mock trial used for students to get practice participating in trials.
Example: Because Stella and Stanley had missed the bus, they would be late getting home. Their arguing about whose fault it was was really a moot point Read the rest of this entry →

SAT Vocab: comprehensive

2010-05-11 in English, Grammar, Vocabulary


Part of Speech: adj

Pronunciations: kom-pree-HEN-siv IPA: /kɒm.prɪ.ˈhɛn.sɪv/

Definition: including all or a great amount, especially as related to knowledge or learning (Ex: a comprehensive analysis).

In timed essays, such as the 25-minute essay on the SAT, students aren’t expected to write comprehensive treatises on the subjects they choose; on the contrary, they are expected to come up with only a handful of good ideas and explain them.

Most common mistake: In class, when this word comes up, a LOT of students say that they think this word means understandable. It doesn’t. Be careful!

See the word in an SAT sample question: Solve this sample sentence completion question:

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