Are You a Good Listener?

30 September 2010


Total words:  660

Estimated reading time: 6 minutes



Image by woodleywonderworks


Why am I talking about listening on a business writing blog?


Actually, this is the next post in a series about building your vocabulary. Two weeks ago we talked about choosing words that are worth learning. Today I’ll discuss two types of meaning: literal and implied. And we’ll look at some online dictionaries.


Trick question?

The question ‘are you a good listener?’ can literally mean ‘do you have good listening skills?’


But it has a more common meaning – an implied meaning.


Best friends and counselors

Quite often, when a native speaker says someone is a ‘good listener’, it means that that person understands on an emotional level; they empathise with how someone feels. You might say this about someone that you share your joys and sorrows with – a close friend or a counselor or a family member. You go to these people for a ‘shoulder to cry on’ because you know they’ll take time to really hear you at an emotional level.


The expression ‘good listener’ is not often used in its literal sense. A better expression for the literal meaning might be ‘effective listener’.


Denotation and connotation

So words and expressions can have both literal meanings, also called ‘denotations’ – and they can have implied meanings, also called ‘connotations’.


To learn denotations of words is relatively easy. Just use a dictionary. Learning connotations, on the other hand, is a big challenge in a second or foreign language.


Many dictionaries do list and illustrate word connotations. But implied meanings can change depending on the situation – and they can change very fast from how words or expressions are used in everyday culture, especially among young people, for whom ‘bad’ is good and ‘cool’ is hot.


Online dictionaries

Online dictionaries are a very easy-to-use resource for learning denoted and implied meanings. Although I have several hard copy dictionaries for American, British and International English, I also use online dictionaries, which have distinct benefits.


Hard copy dictionaries are heavy, and they’re out of date as soon as they’re published. Their physical size dictates the number of entries possible to include.


But the size of online dictionaries is not limited, and they can be updated easily, so you’ll get traditional meanings along with the latest use of modern and slang expressions. Most also provide pronunciation sound files. Even though I know how to use phonemic script (pronunciation symbols), I sometimes use sound files to confirm the pronunciation of some words. Another benefit is that if you’re near a computer or mobile device, online dictionaries are always at your fingertips.


Examples of online dictionaries

There are dozens of online dictionaries to choose from – each with their own added resources. Here are just a few.


The online encyclopaedia, Wikipedia, has a companion dictionary called Wictionary with more than 2 million English entries. All the Wikipedia resources are written and edited by users. Along with meanings and pronunciation sound files, Wictionary also has sample quotations, synonyms and antonyms. Another useful tool is their translation into many languages, including Chinese. is one of the most popular online dictionaries. Besides definitions and pronunciation sound files, you can enjoy their word games and daily crossword puzzles.


The Cambridge Dictionaries Online offers word meanings at advanced and learner levels, American English and idioms. Their dictionary of phrasal verbs (verbs combined with prepositions and/or adverbs) is a useful resource for learning one of the trickiest parts of grammar.


The Urban Dictionary is an online dictionary of slang words and phrases that you won’t find in a traditional dictionary. Similar to Wikipedia, its content comes from users. Warning: The Urban Dictionary contains a lot of foul language, so parents will want to check it before allowing their children to use it. 


Other suggestions?

What about you? Can you suggest other resources for learning vocabulary? For example, have you used an online dictionary that you really like and could recommend? Let us know in the comments. Thanks!

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