How to Build Your Vocabulary in 4 Steps Suman February 12, 2015

How to Build Your Vocabulary in 4 Steps

Welcome to the second post in the vocabulary series. In the first post of this series, we looked at 6 reasons why a good vocabulary is important.

A strong vocabulary is important not just to crack management exams. It is also be important in your profession where your success will be determined by the ability to use a variety of words in their right contexts and infer correctly from others. You writing style is also determined by the words you use. Many of us have tried our hand at improving our vocab, but gave up midway because of the sheer complexity of the process. Building a good vocabulary seems a herculean task. But a few pointers here can set you on the right path to mastering words.

The first thing required to achieve anything is life is a strong resolve to persevere till you achieve the goal. The same applies to mastering a wide range of words. What we need to realise is that it is not important to know every word in the language but add whatever we can to our word power and master usage of those words. Take yourself through these four stages of vocab building and you will see the difference.

1. Learn new words: You need to be friends with words. Begin by getting to know your word friends. You might not remember everything about them in the first meeting, so we are going to write down a few things about them. For instance, their meanings and how they are used. Make a vocabulary notebook because it is important to make a list of words that you have already met. It’ll also be of great help in revising them on a daily basis.

Note these details about your word friends in your notebook. a) Write the word and the word form (noun, verb, adverb, adjective etc) b) the meaning – write literal and figurative meanings since a lot of times you need to know the connotations of a word to make sense of it and c) an example of the word being used in a sentence. Making sentences is an effective way to remember the meanings of words in a context. And the word form helps in usage since it points out whether it is an action word or can be used for description etc.

Every word in your vocab book should to be treated like this:

Buttress (n): to support or reinforce with a buttress; a structure, usually a brick or reinforcement; (v) to prop or bolster

Eg: Literal: The 150 yr old church had to be buttressed with additional support to prevent it from collapsing.

Figurative: She wasn’t awarded the Masters degree since she could not produce enough evidence to buttress her thesis (if there is a a figurative usage)

Note that the same word is used as different word forms – as a noun and as a verb. This is important piece of information from a usage point of view.

Set a target of familiarising yourself with upto 5 words everyday. Ensure that you revise these words before moving on to another 5 the next day. This way you will make word friends everyday and meet them regularly till a point when you know them very well.

Initially, it might seem a tedious process but gradually you will realise that it is so much easier to find your word friends you met here than to look for them in the dictionary. This is your dictionary and you are free to note whatever details you want to about your word friends.

2. Make connections: When you meet new people, you tend to make common connections. For instance, 2 friends who like reading or people you met online and you associate them together in your mind. Similarly, as you discover and add new words everyday, you will realise that different words have meanings similar to the ones you have learnt before. For instance, the word stealthy is similar to furtive. So you could mentally group the 2 together. (or jot down one next to the other in your vocab notebook so that you associate both words during revision) And then as you go on, add clandestine, surreptitious and sly to your association with the previous words.

You will be happy to know that there can be a lot words with similar meanings and when handled intelligently, its not difficult to master them. Your ability to recall these words testifies to the fact that you are on the right track and you efforts are paying you well.

3. Develop networks: As your number of friends grow, you generally group them by a certain criteria. You could put your office people in one group, your weekend buddies in another and also people you don’t like in a separate category. You can do the same with words. At this point, your vocabulary learning has become more dynamic. You have also begun using some of these new words in your everyday life. You have added scores of words to your word power and now is it time to weave them into a pattern that can help you remember them better. You will realise that you can bunch words together since they have the same dominant meaning. For instance, debilitate, enfeeble, effete, emaciate, emasculate – all these broadly mean to weaken or rob one of power or strength. In a situation where you are not sure of the exact meaning of any of these words, you can recall the general meaning and make the most of the situation.

Similarly, the word forgive can develop into a network of pardon, absolve, exculpate, exempt, exonerate, grant amnesty etc. And since the word you began with here is forgive, you will remember that the dominant meaning here is to free from blame. Or a network of words to do with stubborn – intractable, intransigent, obdurate, persistent, obstinate, indocile and so on.

4. Understand nuances: Your word friends, like people, can behave differently in different contexts.Through the last three stages, you would have made significant progress making word friends and grouping similar ones together. And now is the time to understand the nuances and connotations in which you are likely to meet them in your daily life. After all, our hard work is directed towards being able to summon these words and use them in practical contexts. So figure out the different moods words can appear in. 


Understand different shades of meanings of words

Your word friends can have positive or negative shades to them. They can have literal meanings but connote something else in other contexts. You would have got a fair idea of this while making networks of words with positive feel to them like affable, benign, genial or courteous. Or words with more sinister shades like baneful, destructive, calamitous or venomous.

Similarly, the words voracious and rapacious, both mean greedy but the former is positive and the latter a negatively shaded word. And through your knowledge from stage one, you also know that these are adjectives used to describe people. The word hate is used in everyday situations to talk of something that is disliked. The words abhor and abominate are also similar in meaning but are a lot stronger in degree used in a more formal contexts. You can use the words forgive and pardon in ordinary contexts but amnesty is granted to a criminal only by a head of state. 

There are a few more pointers that you need to keep in mind right from stage one. If you are using a word list, never choose words in an alphabetical order. Beginning words with letter A and moving on to letter B only after finishing the A list will restrict you from dealing with words you come across beginning with other letters. In real life, you are not going to come across words in alphabetical order, but they will be randomly distributed across situations and contexts.

Also, supplement your vocab building by reading on a variety of subjects. You will meet your word friends during your reading sessions which will help you acquaint yourself better with them in the contexts they appear. And when you recognise them and recall their details, you are getting to know them better. During reading, you might also come across other words that you do not know yet. Pull out your vocab book and begin your journey of being friends with them right away.

Suggested activity: Get a note book and keep it handy when you read. Start noting down difficult words that you come across. You can spend time with a dictionary later to find and write down their meanings.

Other posts in the series include:

Step 1: Learn new words – This post in the series discusses step one in detail illustrating how to start the process of learning words one step at a time. It shows a sample illustration of how your vocabulary book should have words, meanings, word forms and examples to every new word you come across.

The next post talks about making connections between words  and the third one about developing word networks to make your learning more dynamic. Words that have similar meanings can be grouped together to make it easier to remember them.

The final post talks about understanding nuances and connotations of words. This post talks about learning to use words in different contexts even if it means using them metaphorically and in different intensity of emotions.