What's a good way to expand one's vocabulary?
July 16, 2010 11:35 AM   Subscribe

What's a good way to expand one's vocabulary?

I've been wanting to expand my vocabulary for some time now, but don't know what the best approach for attaining this would be. Reading fiction can be a pain as I'm often not fully able to comprehend what I'm reading. This is due to not understanding certain terms in the text I'm reading.

I know there are a slew of books available which help to assist people in improving their vocabulary, but I don't know where to begin. I also heard recently that audio-books can be great for building up a vocabulary as they can help with pronunciation of words, but, once again, I don't know where to begin - I need guidance and recommendations.

Thanks. I await your recommendations.
posted by GlassHeart to Writing & Language (23 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Write down every word you don't understand when you read. Look it up. Make flashcards. Study.
posted by emilyd22222 at 11:37 AM on July 16, 2010 [2 favorites]

I have a faint suspicion some of my friends think I have a good vocabulary. I don't know that book learning helps vocabulary as much as you'd like - I have a feeling that learning the words this way adds them in the sense that you understand them, and might sometimes use them when writing, but it's less effective at adding them to the repertoire of words you actually use when talking.

Deep friendships and regular animated conversation with people with large vocabularies probably help turn the book-learning into practiced speech.

I don't know if it's useful, but it's fun to watch characters with large vocabularies. Monty Burns on the Simpsons - his verbiage is old fashioned, but it's also awesome :)

Also - Word Of The Day toilet paper :-)
posted by -harlequin- at 11:45 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading the dictionary worked for me.
posted by rhizome at 11:47 AM on July 16, 2010


- my vocab list (words I have trouble remembering the definition and/or the existence of, which I actually want to understand or use in normal situations rather than know about for trivia/novelty/comedy purposes like "antidisestablishmentarianism" or "defenestrate")

- this thread.

Maybe sign up with wordnik (formerly wordie) (the same site my aforementioned list is on).
posted by Jaltcoh at 11:51 AM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

Reading fiction can be a pain, as you say, but it depends upon what you are reading. There are books for every kind of reader. Don't start with the plays of William Shakespeare. Those are very difficult. You are undoubtedly capable of reading Dr. Seus, for example (The Cat In The Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, etc.). Books have been written for every level of expertise. Just find your level. And there are lots of really entertaining books that are tremendously enjoyable to read. And of course, you will run into words that you don't know. Look them up. The advantage of finding new words in works of fiction, as compared to just sitting down with a dictionary and reading the whole thing, is that fiction shows you how words are used. Even when dictionaries give example sentences, it's not as useful as seeing how they are used in a novel or a short story. And certainly less entertaining.
posted by grizzled at 11:53 AM on July 16, 2010

When you read, keep a dictionary next to you, and look up the words you don't understand as you come across them.
posted by rabbitrabbit at 11:57 AM on July 16, 2010

My husband and I have a "word of the day." Each day (although admittedly we don't do it every day) one of us gets to pick the word of the day. What I've found is that when I'm reading a novel or the New York Times I start flagging words I don't know to use as a word of the day. So that I can remember the words we've done I started emailing them to myself. Recently we've done sinecure, carapace, covey, facile, prolixity, claque, foofaraw, passel, mendacious, craven, argot, vituperative, voluble, and my favorite: tintinnabulation.
I feel like I've really improved my vocabulary without doing a lot of work. I used to read over words I didn't know, but now I focus on them and learn them. It's worked for me. I read a novel with the word carapace and I used it as the word of the day and then I read another novel with the same word and I was like "oh I know that" I don't think I would have made the connection if I didn't have the WOTD.
posted by bananafish at 12:02 PM on July 16, 2010

Play Scrabble against the computer (or your super smart friends). Look up every word that you can't define.
posted by brand-gnu at 12:04 PM on July 16, 2010

Oh yeah, I should have added what rabbitrabbit said: any time you don't understand a word, if you have a few extra seconds to spare, look it up in a dictionary.

And here's how to become really alert about vocabulary: don't just look it up and rush right back to reading. Stop and think about it a bit. Ask questions about -- for instance:

- Does it seem etymologically related to other words you're more familiar with? The dictionary often has information about this.

- In what contexts have you seen this word before? Is it a highly versatile word, or does it seem restricted to certain types of writing? (For instance, I often see "apoplectic" used hyperbolically in news articles to refer to people who forcefully object to something -- "Republicans were apoplectic..." -- and I wonder if it's especially favored by political reporters.)

- What do you think of the author's word choice? Do you wish the author had chosen a more common word that means the same thing, like using "forbidden" instead of "verboten," or "commoners" instead of "hoi polloi"? Is the author just showing off, or does the exotic vocabulary word add an interesting shade of meaning?

- Can you imagine a situation when you'd actually use it yourself?
posted by Jaltcoh at 12:13 PM on July 16, 2010 [6 favorites]

There's an online Dictionary thing that will send you a new word/definition daily. Maybe dictionary.com or something? I subscribed (free) a couple of weeks ago and have already learned one new word, which I can't now remember. But if I stumble across it in reading, I'll know!
posted by fivesavagepalms at 12:44 PM on July 16, 2010

Just read. Books. Journals like National Geographic. Read something interesting and at a higher reading level than what you're used to. Pick different genres. The thing about reading mere vocab lists is that (1) you lack experiential context for their practical use and (2) they don't stay with you because of that.
posted by Ky at 1:11 PM on July 16, 2010

Use is the best way, after you look up the definition. Don't invest in any vocab builder bullshit books. Just look up the word you don't know in the dictionary. Then make it physical somehow, like writing the word down, circling it in the dictionary, make it tactile. Then use the word thrice throughout the day.
posted by Lutoslawski at 1:35 PM on July 16, 2010

Is getting an ereader feasible for you? I feel like my vocabulary's grown after I got my Kindle. It has a function that lets you click on a word and takes you straight to the dictionary. I look up many more unfamiliar words now that I did when I'd have to actually go find a dictionary.
If that's not possible, I'd definitely advocate reading with a dictionary nearby. It can be a pain, but it really helps to look up words in context.

For sheer vocabulary increasing, you could try sites like freerice.com . I don't think it's as effective, because it's by nature a bunch of unrelated words, but if you spend a couple minutes a day on it, you'll start seeing some of the same words again, which could help reinforce them in your brain.

You asked about audiobooks. I'd stay away from them while building vocabulary. Coming across an unfamiliar word in my reading gives me pause for a moment- coming across an unfamiliar word in my listening, though, derails my concentration completely. Is it a word that I actually don't know, or one I just don't know how to pronounce? Or did I just mishear the narrator? Finally, listening to words doesn't allow you to use many of the tools that you can while reading, such as thinking about the roots of the word.
posted by estlin at 6:35 PM on July 16, 2010

Learning vocabulary involves a lot of rote memorization and practice, and one of the best ways to do the former is with a spaced-repetition flashcard program like Anki, Mnemosyne, or SuperMemo.

Lately, I've been trying to expand my own vocabulary by working through a GRE word list using Anki. I have a flashcard template that presents me with three cards for each word: word -> definition (for obvious reasons), definition -> word (to help remember the word when I want to use it), and example sentence -> word (for context/usage). For some words, I've also added pronunciation recordings from online dictionary sites, so I won't learn to pronounce anything incorrectly. This has even helped with words I thought I already knew, since it adds precision to words that I only had a loose (or erroneous) grasp on.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 8:43 PM on July 16, 2010 [1 favorite]

English is my second language, albeit acquired at a relatively early age, so maybe I've been doing it wrong. Comparing myself with my peers, I have a much broader vocabulary than everyone except for people who read-for-fun. Doesn't matter what they read; fiction, non-fiction.

Having an undergrad science background vs. a lib arts background makes a pretty big difference, but moreso in allegory than straight-up vocabulary.

Interested in any historical figures? Any of them write an autobiography?

Either see unfamiliar words enough so they become familiar and meaningful in context, or keep writing them down and looking them up. Making a note of where you cane across the word in the first place can help lots.

Maybe keep a pad of the smallest post-it notes around with you, and mark pages where the word is found with the word. That way, you can look up what the word means, then read the paragraph again, in context, knowing what the word means.

Or find lists of SAT/GRE vocab lists and do flashcards. This kind of cramming doesn't "stick," though.
posted by porpoise at 8:45 PM on July 16, 2010

Free Rice is an online vocabulary building tool/game. It's a bit like a standard vocabulary test, in that you select the definition of a given word from four possible answers, but it's interactive; each right answer bumps you up one (or several) levels, and each wrong answer bumps you down a level, so you eventually settle into "your" level. From there, words that you've missed begin to reappear every so often, and as you begin to remember their definitions and guess them correctly, you can move up in levels. It's fun and addictive, and as a bonus it benefits a charity which combats world hunger.

Also, if you're using Firefox, realize that you can highlight any word* you don't recognize and then right-click on it to look it up on Dictionary.com, Google, Wikipedia, or whatever you have selected in that little thing that looks like a mini address bar just to the right of the regular address bar. (If you don't like what's selected, use the drop-down feature to select what you want.) Get into the habit of doing this ALWAYS!

Well, except when you can't...

* There are sites like NYTimes, snopes, the occasional blog, etc, which have some application running which prevents you from highlighting text on their pages, presumably to prevent plagiarizing. Still, 99% of the time that is not the case.
posted by Marla Singer at 2:03 AM on July 17, 2010

Underline unfamiliar words with a pencil, carry on reading so as not to break the flow.
posted by hiho at 5:12 AM on July 17, 2010

Do crossword puzzles online, somewhere you can see the answers after you can't fill anymore in.

While you're doing them, look up any clues that you don't understand.
posted by timdicator at 6:07 AM on July 17, 2010

Well, except when you can't...

* There are sites like NYTimes, snopes, the occasional blog, etc, which have some application running which prevents you from highlighting text on their pages,

Really? I can highlight text on nytimes.com. For instance, I just selected, copied, and pasted this lede paragraph from an article:

Officials on Saturday said that pressure readings in the well were rising steadily since the valves were closed on a cap at the top of the well on Thursday afternoon, an indication that the well was in good shape.
posted by Jaltcoh at 7:24 AM on July 17, 2010

A Word A Day is terrific. As you can see in the extensive archives, each week has a theme, so you get to learn words that are related, and the etymology section helps you understand the roots, which can also help both with remembering the word and with seeing its relationship to other words with the same root.

I've also gone to the library and checked out "Word Power" and "5 Minutes to a Massive Vocabulary!" type books, just to see which of them I liked best.

If you really want to reinforce your learning, you could do several steps for each word:

* add it to your flashcards and practice it (spaced repetition is great, as mentioned above)
* search Project Gutenberg, Google Books, MetaFilter, or your other favorite sites for examples of the word. For example, the most recent A Word A Day is "folderol". Here's a Google search for "folderol" at Project Gutenberg.
* use the word in a sentence (or three!)

If you do even a little of this, even for a few words a week, you might be amazed to see how often you see the words you're learning pop up in new things you read.

Finally, something I often overlook when I'm learning: once a week or so, take a moment to think back over the past week. Ask yourself: What worked well for you? What didn't work so well? Then, do more of what works well for you.
posted by kristi at 11:34 AM on July 17, 2010

1) Learn the Greek and Latin roots that serve as the foundation of much of the English language.
2) Compliment your callipygian friends and acquaintances
posted by coolgeek at 9:01 AM on July 18, 2010

fivesavagepalms: "There's an online Dictionary thing that will send you a new word/definition daily. Maybe dictionary.com or something?"

Yep, dictionary.com Word of the Day.
posted by the latin mouse at 9:47 AM on July 18, 2010

Check out Anu Garg's Word of the Day. I signed up for and receive his e-newsletter daily.
posted by pinside at 5:44 PM on July 18, 2010

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