EVERYONE—FROM BEGINNING LEARNERS in English to veterans in journalism—knows the frustration of not having the right word immediately available in that lexicon one carries between one's ears. Sometimes it's a matter of not being able to recall the right word; sometimes we never knew it. It is also frustrating to read a newspaper or homework assignment and run across words whose meanings elude us. Language, after all, is power. Building a vocabulary that is adequate to the needs of one's reading and self-expression has to be a personal goal for every writer and speaker.
Making It Personal
Using some durable piece of paper—white construction paper or the insides of the ripped-off covers of old notebooks—begin to write down words in small but readable script that you discover in your reading that you can't define. Read journals and newspapers that challenge you in terms of vocabulary. Pursue words actively and become alert to words that you simply overlooked in the past. Write down the words in one column; then, later, when you have a dictionary at your disposal, write down a common definition of the word; in a third column, write a brief sentence using the word, underlined.
Carry this paper or cardboard with you always. In the pauses of your busy day—take out the paper and review your vocabulary words until you feel comfortable that you would recognize (and be able to use) these words the next time you see them. The amazing thing is that you will see the words again—even "nefarious miscreants," and probably sooner than you thought. In fact, you might well discover that the words you've written down are rather common. What's happening is not that, all of a sudden, people are using words you never saw before, but that you are now reading and using words that you had previously ignored.
Using Every Resource
Most bookstores carry books on building a more powerful vocabulary. If you've got money to spare or if they're on sale, buy them and use them; they can't hurt. Books that group words according to what they have in common—more in meaning than in spelling—are especially useful.
Newspapers often carry brief daily articles that explore the meanings of words and phrases. These articles often emphasize peculiar words that won't find themselves into your working vocabulary, but they can still be fun. Often you'll find that learning one new word leads to other new words, little constellations of meaning that keep your brain cells active and hungry for more. Make reading these articles one of your daily habits, an addiction, even.
Play dictionary games with your family in which someone uses the dictionary to find a neat word and writes down the real definition and everyone else writes down a fake (and funny) definition. See how many people you can fool with your fake definitions.
A thesaurus is like a dictionary except that it groups words within constellations of meaning. It is often useful in discovering just the right word you need to express what you want to say. Make sure you correctly understand the definition of a word (by using a dictionary) before using it in some important paper or report. Your bookstore salesperson can provide plenty of examples of an inexpensive thesaurus. The online Dictionary has access to both an extensive dictionary and a hyperlinked thesaurus. Links allow you to go conveniently back and forth between the dictionary and the thesaurus.
Knowing the Roots
At least half of the words in the English language are derived from Greek and Latin roots. Knowing these roots helps us to grasp the meaning of words before we look them up in the dictionary. It also helps us to see how words are often arranged in families with similar characteristics.
For instance, we know that sophomores are students in their second year of college or high school. What does it mean, though, to be sophomoric? The "sopho" part of the word comes from the same Greek root that gives us philosophy, which we know means "love of knowledge." The "ic" ending is sometimes added to adjectival words in English, but the "more" part of the word comes from the same Greek root that gives us moron. Thus sophomores are people who think they know a lot but really don't know much about anything, and a sophomoric act is typical of a "wise fool," a "smart-ass"!
Let's explore further. Going back to philosophy, we know the "sophy" part is related to knowledge and the "phil" part is related to love (because we know that Philadelphia is the City of Brotherly Love and that a philodendron loves shady spots). What, then, is philanthropy? "Phil" is still love, and "anthropy" comes from the same Greek root that gives us anthropology, which is the study ("logy," we know, means study of any kind) of anthropos, humankind. So a philanthropist must be someone who loves humans and does something about it—like giving money to find a cure for cancer or to build a Writing Center for the local community college. (And an anthropoid, while we're at it, is an animal who walks like a human being.) Learning the roots of our language can even be fun!
Some common Greek and Latin roots:
Root (source) Meaning English words
aster, astr (G) star astronomy, astrology
audi (L) to hear audible, auditorium
bene (L) good, well benefit, benevolent
bio (G) life biology, autobiography
dic, dict (L) to speak dictionary, dictator
fer (L) to carry transfer, referral
fix (L) to fasten fix, suffix, affix
geo (G) earth geography, geology
graph (G) to write graphic, photography
jur, just (L) law jury, justice
log, logue (G) word, thought, monolog(ue), astrology, biology,
luc (L) light lucid, translucent
manu (L) hand manual, manuscript
meter, metr (G) measure metric, thermometer
op, oper (L) work operation, operator
path (G) feeling pathetic, sympathy, empathy
ped (G) child pediatrics, pedophile
phil (G) love philosophy, Anglophile
phys (G) body, nature physical, physics
scrib, script (L) to write scribble, manuscript
tele (G) far off telephone, television
ter, terr (L) earth territory, extraterrestrial
vac (L) empty vacant, vacuum, evacuate
verb (L) word verbal, verbose
vid, vis (L) to see video, vision, television
Learning Prefixes and Suffixes
Knowing the Greek and Latin roots of several prefixes and suffixes (beginning and endings attached to words) can also help us determine the meaning of words. Ante, for instance, means before, and if we connect bellum with belligerant to figure out the connection with war, we'll know that antebellum refers to the period before war. (In the United States, the antebellum period is our history before the Civil War.)
Prefixes showing quantity
Meaning Prefixes in English Words
half semiannual, hemisphere
one unicycle, monarchy, monorail
two binary, bimonthly, dilemma, dichotomy
hundred century, centimeter, hectoliter
thousand millimeter, kilometer
Prefixes showing negation
without, no, not asexual, anonymous, illegal, immoral, invalid,
not, absence of, nonbreakable, antacid, antipathy, contradict
opposite to, counterclockwise, counterweight
do the opposite dehorn, devitalize, devalue
do the opposite disestablish, disarm
of, deprive of
wrongly, bad misjudge, misdeed
Prefixes showing time
before antecedent, forecast, precede, prologue
again rewrite, redundant
Prefixes showing direction or position
above, over supervise, supererogatory
across, over transport, translate
below, under infrasonic, infrastructure, subterranean, hypodermic
in front of proceed, prefix
out of erupt, explicit, ecstasy
into injection, immerse, encourage, empower
around circumnavigate, perimeter
with coexist, colloquy, communicate, consequence, correspond,
Suffixes, on the other hand, modify the meaning of a word and frequently determine its function within a sentence. Take the noun nation, for example. With suffixes, the word becomes the adjective national, the adverb nationally, and the verb nationalize.
See what words you can come up with that use the following suffixes.
· Typical noun suffixes are -ence, -ance, -or, -er, -ment, -list, -ism, -ship, -ency, -sion, -tion,
· -ness, -hood, -dom
· Typical verb suffixes are -en, -ify, -ize, -ate
· Typical adjective suffixes are -able, -ible, -al, -tial, -tic, -ly, -ful, -ous, -tive, -less, -ish, -ulent
· The adverb suffix is -ly (although not all words that end in -ly are adverbs—like friendly)
The dictionary should be one of the most often used books in home. Place the dictionary somewhere so that you can find it immediately and use it often. If you do your reading and homework in the kitchen and the dictionary is on a shelf in the den or bedroom, it's too tempting to say "I'll look it up next time."
The home dictionary should be large enough to contain much more than just spellings. It should contain extensive definitions, word origins, and notes on usage. Carrying in your purse or backpack a pocket dictionary with more concise definitions is also a good idea. Get in the habit of turning to it often. A well worn dictionary is a beautiful thing.
Using the Internet
Use the internet as an aid to vocabulary development by exploring the abundant opportunities for reading available on the World Wide Web. Online newspapers and commentary magazines those challenge your mind and your vocabulary with full-text articles. At least once a week read a major article with the purpose of culling from it some vocabulary words that are unfamiliar to you.
Vocabulary University is a new online resource for working on groups of related vocabulary words in a puzzle format. Vocabulary University a graphically rich Web site, is broken into beginning, intermediate, and college-level work. Vocabulary for English Language Learners is a treasury and nicely organized resources for ESL students.
You can also go to the web-site of the Scripps-Howard Annual National Spelling Bee and listen to words. The words are arranged in interesting groups. With Real Audio on your browser, you can hear the word and its definition and then try to spell it on your own. Have
a dictionary handy! This Guide to Grammar and Writing also has a series of spelling tests that can be used as vocabulary builders: go to the section on Spelling and choose the spelling tests.
Crossword puzzles are an excellent way to develop vocabulary. Do the puzzles that appear in local newspaper on a daily or weekly basis or try these interactive crossword puzzles on the internet.