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Building Vocabulary

Anyone interested in improving their job opportunities, raising their IQs and boosting their success in the education system could achieve all three by focusing on one key area: words.

Studies show that IQ test scores, school grades, and job status are connected to the size of vocabulary. Larger vocabulary tends to produce higher grades and more desirable jobs. This shouldn’t really come as a surprise: the more words you have at your fingertips, the more precise you can be in dealing with meaning. This isn’t just about presenting your own ideas - it’s do with grasping what is going on around you. In an increasingly technical society, the pressure for precise expression will grow, but the need to understand one’s own living environment will also mean that those who have a proper understanding of a large number of words will do better.

Sharpening vocabulary skills puts you control over school subjects, your workplace, and the world in general. Vocabulary-building techniques that can double the average vocabulary have been developed, but ultimately these depend upon your own passion about words, their meanings, their power, and their ability to make you more causative.

The most informal and easiest way of building a rich vocabulary is extensive reading. But there is a kind of ‘critical mass’ in vocabulary terms which means that some find casual reading easier than others. Until a reader surpasses the critical mass point in terms of the amount of words that they know, they can drown in any given text. Another way of putting this is ‘escape velocity’: a reader who has grasped enough about the words in any piece of writing will go beyond the words to the meanings and achieve ‘orbit’, or understanding; a reader who fail to achieve that point will not escape the gravity of the written symbols on the page and will not reach understanding.

The primary energiser for achieving critical mass or escape velocity with regard to understanding words is the good old dictionary. The first thing you must do, then, if you want to double or triple your vocabulary and therefore your understanding of the world, is to grasp how the dictionary is organised; look at the first few pages of any dictionary to find instructions.

Dictionaries for students usually include some or all of the following features:

1. Guide Words : The first and last word defined on the page are in boldface at the top of that page.

2. Main Entries : Boldfaced words listed at the left side of each column of words.

3. Definitions : Meanings for main entries. Separate meanings are numbered separately.

4. Example Sentences : These show how a particular meaning of the word is used.

5. Parts of Speech : These show if a word is a noun, a verb, an adjective, etc., with examples showing how the word is used in each instance, if it can function as more than one part of speech.

6. Syllable Structure : The word written with dots between syllables (prog•ress•ive, for example). In some dictionaries the main entry shows syllable structure, in others it may be at the end of the entry.

7. Pronunciation : Special symbols are used to show how the syllables are pronounced. These symbols are explained in a pronunciation key, usually at the bottom of each page. (Dictionaries for very young children do not try to use phonetic markings to represent pronunciation.)

Once you have familiarised yourself with the way a dictionary works, you must work on developing an ability to quickly spot the context of a word. Many words in the English language have a number of meanings; context suggests which meanings applies. Just look in a dictionary to see the number of entries for words. A word like ‘collapse’ has only one meaning, but a word like ‘hit’ has several. While reading a passage, it’s important to be able to tell roughly which meaning applies. This is the beginning of expanding one’s understanding.

Look up the word in the dictionary and read the definition that seems to most closely apply. Play around with the word in made-up sentences and you will absorb its meaning. Then, to make sure that your vocabulary will grow to its best potential, do the same for the other definitions.

Each definition that you look up in this way lays the foundation not only for a larger vocabulary but a better life.

Searching for synonyms and antonyms is also helpful. There are also many words that have the same sound, but different spellings and meanings, called homophones. Words that look alike but have different meanings are called homonyms. Here are some homophones:

eye, I

two, too

for, four

hear, here

ere, ear

cereal, serial

flee, flea

shoe, shoo

cite, sight, site

Another thing you can do is to compare related words, searching for similarities to better understand the effects that prefixes, suffixes, and inflections have. For example, act, activate, action, activity, active, and so on: though the parts of speech change, the meaning of the word ‘act’ is contained within each. Similarly, suffixes change the way a word is used, generating a number of words from a single base: break/breakage; govern/government; help/helpful.

But one of the most powerful ways of expanding vocabulary quickly is to understand where words come from. For centuries, the English language has borrowed words from other languages and has also formed new words using a number of processes. Modern English is composed largely of two chief strains: Germanic (the original) and Latinate (imported later either via Norman French or Latin, the latter especially for religious and technical terms). From the Germanic side, English has a passion for compound words. Some are noun+noun, others adjective+noun as in these original examples:

ānstapa ‘lonely wanderer’

æschere ‘naval force, spear army’

ǣtġiefa ‘food-giver, provider’

Two words joining to form a compound word continued throughout the centuries and is still done today in words like ‘handset’, ‘armchair’ or ‘fore-runner’.

A word can be clipped, with a part used to represent the whole (flu for influenza) and parts of two words can be blended to create a new one (MOtor hoTEL = motel).

Some words entered the English language from Greek, such as ‘agonize’ (Gr. agon-) and ‘glossary’ (Gr. gloss-, glosso-)

In brief, what happens when a student grasps the origins and intricacies of a word is that he or she sees a tracery, a pattern in language, which then gives a structure through which new words can be more quickly grasped. If the English language has over a million words this doesn’t necessarily mean a million times that student has to look up a word in a dictionary: the process speeds up and eventually whole branches of words are grasped at a glance.

And with the comprehension of words comes an ability to see and to interact with the world in new ways.


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