What is the most effective way to improve your vocabulary (e.g. softare, book, method)?
September 1, 2012 1:59 AM   Subscribe

What is the most effective way to increase your vocabulary (e.g. book, softare, method)?
posted by denverco to Writing & Language (22 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
To what end? Are you trying to pass some specific test in the near future? Or do you want to be a more articulate, literate person in general? I don't know much about tactics for the first option, but for the second one: Read. Just read, a lot, and then read some more. Novels, non-fiction, magazines, it doesn't matter too much what, but the more the better. If you're interested in a usable vocabulary, in the real-world sense, there's no substitute for encountering new words in the wild, in context. Language is a subtle thing, and cramming off of vocab lists will not, by itself, give you mastery.

And reading is pretty fun, anyway, so hey, bonus.
posted by flod at 2:45 AM on September 1, 2012 [3 favorites]

Yeah. You're probably best off reading, with a dictionary close at hand, a lot.
posted by GlassHeart at 2:47 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Thirding "read broadly and voraciously". I spent another chapter in my life as a teacher of writing and such things, and the students who had been lifelong readers stood out from those who hadn't like torches among twigs. There is no substitute, no app, no program that does what reading does.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 3:28 AM on September 1, 2012

I agree with the previous posters, and I also want to point out the A Word A Day mailing list, one of the few things I read every day.
posted by Multicellular Exothermic at 4:08 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

This dictionary bookmark can help if you're reading print books. If you're trying to increase the speed at which you read so you can read more to increase your vocabulary, Quickreader is a good program to use.

Reading is the fastest. You can use apps like memrise for learning lists, but they won't sink into your head with the same context as wide-ranging reading will. Magazines like National Geographic and Reader's Digest are very good for short informative articles with a usefully wide vocabulary.

Get in the habit of bringing books around with you for five minutes in a queue here and there - it adds up. Look for page-turner books if you don't have a reading habit, not tough literary books. Mystery novels or popular YA novels are great to get you hooked on reading.

Keep a journal and push yourself to describe your day with some of the new words you've learned.

OTOH, if it's for an exam - flashcards (app or physical) and writing and re-writing by hand the list of words - the physical act of writing the words out helps them stay stuck for a while.
posted by viggorlijah at 4:13 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Nthing read as much as you can. Non fiction, fiction, magazines, newspapers, but also listen with a hungry ear, all with a dictionary not just in the vicinity, but practically attached to you. Have no hesitation to look up a word you think you know. Always ask a conversation partner what a word means if you don't know it already (I promise, you will forget to look it up later at least some of the time and I love it when people ask me what a word I'm using means, but do not mistake my pulling out the phone to google an actual definition as ignorance. I just do not want to steer you wrong about the complexity of meaning. Many words have more than one definition and I don't want to be responsible for you absorbing only one).

Be observant. Notice the connections between words. Some are obvious - Familiar and Family. Community and Communion. Narcotic and Narcolepsy. Gourmet and Gourmand. Mysterious and Mystical. I find a particular type of these connections, known as doublets, to be fascinating! (mind that a doublet is also a particular type of jacket. Strange, isn't it?)

Spend some time with the OED. Not if you can, of course you can. Go to the library and sit with it for an hour. Look up words you already know you know and read their history. Learn what types of words come from where. Use different words in your vocabulary. Switch "different" to "alternate," for example.

Always be thinking about words. Learn that shoe can be a verb. Past tense: shod. Now think of the word slipshod. Aha! Look it up to find if the connection you made is right.

Make puns. Practice with the most horrible puns you know. Expand your pun horizons.

Read books about words. Stephan Fatsis wrote Word Freak about his experience with competitive Scrabble. Play Scrabble. Play pictionary (which forces you to translate words into pictures, and vice versa). Play pub trivia, watch Jeopardy, do Crossword puzzles. Subscribe to word a day.

Soak your life in words. Become absolutely absorbent, missing no chance to latch onto a new meaning. Join the word list that Anu Garg curates daily, called a Word a Day. (on preview, I see it just got mentioned)

Use metaphor on purpose. Compare people not just to flowers, but particular flowers and you will notice that Katniss Everdeen is, like her sister Primrose, named after a flower in a very bleak world. Learn you mythology, Greek and Roman and discover that Hercules means Hera's Pride. Well, that's interesting, isn't it, just for it's own sake, but it also opens up new layers to their stories.
posted by bilabial at 4:13 AM on September 1, 2012 [6 favorites]

Oh. The biggest point I was getting at was use your words. And I wasn't clear about that. Speak more. Write more. You can pour all the words you want into your head, but if you don't get used to turning on the word faucet, the works will lock up and nothing will come out but rusty sludge when you need to quench some parched word thirst. See, a huge, awkward metaphor. And I can keep it going, except that my day needs to start.
posted by bilabial at 4:15 AM on September 1, 2012

Since you asked about "most effective", I recommend an SRS flash card software system such as Anki. I use it every day for foreign language vocabulary.
posted by Tanizaki at 4:31 AM on September 1, 2012

Quizlet, hands down (I teach SAT prep and routinely get kids to learn--really learn--6000 words in a six-week summer session).

Best practice: use flashcards or space race to familiarize yourself with the words, then use the "LEARN" function--if you combine sets it has elements of spaced repetition.

(Oh, Anki is awesome, too, but Quizlet is simpler and free and obvious)
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:51 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Yeah there are lots of GRE vocab apps that are aimed at increasing vocabulary. I really like GRE smart:vocab, which gives you little quizzes and you advance along belt colours (like karate) as you master the words. I've already written the GRE but I still play with the app while I'm standing in lines.
posted by whalebreath at 5:23 AM on September 1, 2012

Studying a bit of etymology will definitely help. You will be surprised at how learning the roots and origins of words will increase your vocab - and it help you to infer the meaning of new words. If you want to know the words in the language, it helps to learn a bit about the history of the language.

The Study of English is a great introductory etymology book.
posted by Flood at 5:31 AM on September 1, 2012

I think just reading alone is not enough, you need to practice using words that you learn in order to memorize them long-term (I presume learning them short-term only is not your goal).

I would also suggest trying to associate a new word you learn with a specific person, animal, thing, or event as a reminder of the meaning. For example, if you learn a word that describes people in some way, associate it with a specific person you know (personally or not).
posted by Dansaman at 7:57 AM on September 1, 2012

Word Power Made Easy was a staple of my studying-for-SATs years in high school.
posted by deanc at 8:23 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

For sheer memorization or exposure to a lot of new words, Memrise. I'm taking the SAT Comprehensive course, a couple of GRE courses, and one under Advanced/higher English. But the important step is to take some time to look each word up in the dictionary to make sure you it means what you think it means. Look for sample sentences online. Then try to see if you can use the word in your own sentences.
posted by pimli at 8:30 AM on September 1, 2012

Crossword puzzles?
posted by bendy at 8:40 AM on September 1, 2012

If you're a native English speaker looking to take your English vocabulary up a notch, learning some Latin and/or German can make a big difference, especially in helping you to read unfamiliar English words. Latin is associated with improved performance in the verbal portion of the SATs and English passages highlighted by word origin.
posted by anaelith at 8:56 AM on September 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

I looked at Quizlet. It seems like a messy hodge-podge of stuff, not well organized and systematic. Can someone who has used it explain for example how one would best use it to build vocabulary?
posted by Dansaman at 9:07 AM on September 1, 2012

A little bit of etymology is a really great way to increase not only your vocabulary, but also your ability to acquire new vocabulary. You don't actually need to know any Latin, Greek, or German; just do a bit of reading about word origins and learn to recognize the roots. Particularly with Latin and Greek, this will allow you to pick up meaning from context much more easily.

Personally, I like word-of-the-day mailing lists just because I love words. I find that they are a very slow way to increase vocabulary. I don't always retain words I see that way, but luckily I follow several mailing lists and words do eventually repeat. I like:
A Word a Day
Dictionary.com Word of the Day
WWFTD (Worthless Word for the Day)

(WWFTD might be at cross purposes for you, as it's mostly archaic words that won't be terribly useful to you. If you're just wanting to improve your vocabulary for the joy of it, though, it is the best one! It's also a good way to solidify your etymological understanding.)

The OED also has a word a day list, but when I last followed it, I found the words very mundane, and I also discovered that 4 words of the day was too many for me. Give it a shot, though, and see if it suits you; my last experience with it was several years ago, anyway.
posted by snorkmaiden at 9:29 AM on September 1, 2012

Anything by Will Self will almost certainly contain a few words you don't know. Whether you'll use them again is another matter.
posted by rhymer at 9:42 AM on September 1, 2012

When I was a literary-minded teenager on a self-improvement binge, I decided I wanted to increase my vocabulary. Here's how I did it: whenever I came across a word I couldn't define, I would look up the definition and add both the word and the definition to a text document. I would read through this document about once a day. When I could look at a word and remember its definition without effort, I would remove it from the document. So there was always a steady stream of words/definitions adding and exiting the document. It worked like a charm.

To keep track of my progress, I also kept a list of the words that I had learned. There were hundreds by the time the project had run its course.
posted by dephlogisticated at 5:23 PM on September 1, 2012

"What is the most effective way to improve your vocabulary (e.g. softare, book, method)?" Well I don't know about "most effective" but I will say it is progressively difficult; Free Rice, where not only do you learn new vocabulary but also have a chance to donate rice to the needy.
posted by Ralph at 11:06 PM on September 2, 2012

Well, if you look at the word stock of the English language, you'll see that a quarter of our words come from French, another quarter from Latin, and a significant 5 percent from Greek. Studying any of those three languages will help you out tremendously in figuring out what unknown words mean and in learning cognates and derivatives.

Also, when reading voraciously, just keep in mind that newspapers are generally written on a seventh-grade level, whereas, say, Jane Austen is on a bit higher plain.

Along the Austen route, try reading works from another English-speaking country and from another time period to learn unique turns of phrase or words that are archaic in the U.S. but still used elsewhere, like the word "fortnight" for "two weeks" or "sennight" for "week."
posted by huxham at 7:04 AM on September 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

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