4 Steps to building Vocabulary -Step 4: Understand nuances Suman March 12, 2015

4 Steps to building Vocabulary -Step 4: Understand nuances

Welcome to the last post in the vocabulary series that will take you to the pinnacle of your word power. Step 4 is when you will really start appreciating the power of a good vocabulary. This is when your word power gets depth. When you graduate from just words and meanings to appreciating the nuances of the variety of shades and colours that words appear in. You will just get better in making the desired impact in your communication by utilising your word power to it’s full potential.

This post takes you to the final leg (Scroll down to the end for the other posts in the series)

Communication skills can be effective only when the words used are contextually correct. And an impressive command over language is mandatory for the same. There are numerous methods in which one can develop and strengthen one’s word power.

We have already spoken about the most common strategy is to make a regimented schedule of noting down words and meanings from the dictionary for sometime everyday. This strategy helps you add to your word power gradually a few words at a time. Or it could be done through reading resources like books and newspapers and then looking up the meanings of difficult words one comes across. It also involves revising the same words numerous times so that they don’t slip out of your memory.

But the point of this post is improving one’s vocabulary doesn’t always mean cramming meanings of high sounding words like, say, curmudgeon and menagerie. It’s also about being able to appreciate the nuances of common words that we use everyday. There can be different ways in which you can add depth to your knowledge of words. Apart from learning the meaning of the words, you can learn their connotations or juxtapose two words that are opposites and learn them through the difference. You could pick up 2 words that look similar and hence are confusing and write down the exact meanings of the two. This will help you understand them precisely making it easier to recall the correct meaning of the word.

Let’s look at them in detail.


Let’s start by exploring the connotations that I mentioned before – meanings of words at different levels. Let’s take the word – appropriate, for instance. It’s a simple word. The first meaning that comes to mind is – suitable or proper. But as you dig deeper, you will find that the word appropriate has more meanings than we usually know. It also means to take possession of something without permission or to set aside for a particular purpose. For instance:

The leader appropriated the drought funds

This will require a slightly deeper understanding of the word to interpret the sentence correctly.

Similarly, the word wanton can be used as an adjective to mean uncalled for or unjustified – wanton cruelty to animals or sexually lawless conduct – wanton behaviour after drinking. In the same way, looking into all the possible meanings of a word, will help you discover the possibilities of using a word in different contexts. 

Another scenario is where words have a meaning but they may connote something else. Words can have an associated or secondary meaning in addition to the primary meaning. The word ‘pregnant’ can be a case in point. We commonly use it to talk about a female mammal expecting an offspring. But it can also mean fraught or abound – a mind pregnant with ideas connotes being creative or inventive. It can also mean significant or of great importance – a pregnant moment in history.

Understanding nuances will require you to move away from just the word-meaning strategy which you would have if you have been following the steps in the series.

Being aware of the meanings that words have and their connotations can greatly enhance you ability to interpret sentences accurately and precisely in their contexts. Imagine the blunder you could make if you took the literal meaning of a word instead of its contextual meaning. Being conversant with all the roles that words are likely to appear in goes on to boost your communication skills.

Confusing words

Another effective way of broadening your word power is to put confusing words together to achieve clarity. Imagine telling someone – Martial bliss is a great feeling!! We come across some words that sound similar but differ in meaning. Martial refers to war and the right word here should be marital which refers to marriage.


Martial and marital can be confusing! Better not mix the two! Photo credit

Also consider the words factious and fractious. The adjective factious comes from the noun faction, which means a contentious minority within a larger group. So, factious means given to faction or contention. The word fractious has nothing to do with fractions though! Fractious means unruly and stubborn.  Putting together the meanings and the word form of the two words will help you clear out the confusion.

The above example also illustrates that it is always not easy to guess what words mean by their resemblance to other words. Factious can be guessed to come from faction but you cannot apply the same rule to fractious. Infer fractious has anything to do with fractions and you will only end up with disastrous consequences.

You can also weave together confusing words making it easier for you to recall their meaning – The unruly and fractious members turned factious and made factions within the party. (I am just playing around with words!) You will also notice how hints to the meanings of the words are planted in the sentence itself. This way you will always remember the right ones when using the two words.


You can also use opposites as a context for building your word power. For instance, burgeon and extirpate are both verbs of similar degree, but mean the opposite of each other. You can remember the growth and decline relationship between the two words. Similarly, the words satanic and cherubic can be remembered as opposites for their evil and goodness contradiction. The two words can be put together also because they have biblical connotations coming from the Satan and Cherubs (angels) respectively. Using this technique can also help you recall the meaning of one in relation to the other.


Growth and decline as opposites are easier to remember Photo credit

As mentioned above, making sentences will help you remember the meanings of words in their contexts. The tone and style of the sentence can help you understand the usage, degree and the connotation of the word. To take words from a previous example, the sentence, “Call centres burgeoned rapidly all over the place extirpating all other businesses in the process”, you know that the rapid mushrooming of one thing destroyed the other. (It could be a lame sentence trying to pitch the two together. But as long as it helps you remember the words, it works!)

Shades and degrees of intensity


Words take on different hues depending on the intensity of the emotion expressed through them Photo credit

This is my favourite of all the ways of enriching ones word power. We have made networks and looked and bunching words together according to meaning. Now we learn to really appreciate the nuance and intensity to use each word in the network in the correct way. For instance, you must have made networks of words for ‘happy

Happy, glad, overjoyed, delighted, thrilled, ecstatic

The idea now is to be able to use the word of right intensity at the right context. And this is exactly what we need to learn instead of using ‘very’ with everything that expresses more than the basic emotion. So instead of being very happy, you could use any of the other terms that describe your extent of happiness. (I have arranged them almost in increasing intensity)

I will be happy if India wins the World Cup but I feel ecstatic when they defeat the neighbouring country (you know which one!)

Let’s look at another example. For ‘hate

Dislike, hate, loathe abhor, abominate, resent

She hates to be disturbed when she is reading

I abhor the idea of handing over gadgets to kids just to keep them quiet.

The idea of the two words is pretty clear here.

The strategies discussed here will help you add words to your vocabulary and do that in a well rounded manner. You will be able to increase not just the breadth of your word power but also add a new depth to it. These techniques can also be highly effective in breaking the monotony of conventional ways of learning words by rote. A combination of some of these would optimise your efforts at expanding your word power by greatly adding value and quality to your output.

Also in this series:

1. 6 reasons why vocabulary is important in various areas of life : A good word power is important to communicate effectively, be it in personal or professional life.

2. The next post was the 4 step process to building word power : This post takes you through the step wise process. Starting from the basics of learning the meaning of each word to how you could pile on synonyms to multiply your word power.

3. The third post explained step 1 of vocabulary building : Adding new words one 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.

4. The previous post dealt with making connections between words and developing networks to make your learning more dynamic. Words that have similar meanings can be grouped together to make it easier to remember them.