Personally Useful Vocabulary 

18 November 2010

 Image by atomicjeep


Word count:  520

Estimated reading time:  5 minutes


We’ve spent several weeks on the subject of building your vocabulary. We talked about how to find words that are worth learning, about types of meaning (denotation and connotation) and about lively and precise verbs.


I’d like to think more about words that are worth learning.


Knowing words that are commonly used in your area of business is of course very important. But knowing which words you will personally use is just as important.


Let’s say that you’re considering some new words to learn. Maybe they’re the largest words in a Wordle cloud that you’ve created – or they’re unfamiliar words that you’ve read. So you jot them down in a notebook. You look them up in a dictionary and write some sample sentences. You read through the notebook every day for several weeks and try to remember to use them either in conversation or in writing.


These are all very good practices. But how well do they really work?


What do the words mean to you?

Learning involves change, and change isn’t easy. It’s uncomfortable.


If you’re not comfortable using a new word, you’ll probably never use it – and therefore you’ll forget it very soon. So why take your limited time to learn it in the first place?


Personally useful words

I recently read a very useful suggestion for helping people decide which words to learn.


James Venema, a language professor in Japan, suggests that after you’ve written a sentence with a new word, consider it carefully and ask yourself, ‘Will I be able to use this sentence to start a real conversation?’


In other words, you need to think beyond a single sentence. Think about who you’ll use it with and where. Think about the why and how of a situation where that word is naturally used.


Then, if you think you’ll be able to use the word in a real situation, it’s probably a useful one to learn.


Think about real-life use

So the next time you want to learn a new word, try this method:

1. Write it in a vocabulary notebook (on paper or in a computer file).

2. Look up the word and read through sample sentences in the dictionary.

3. Check two or three dictionaries for more examples of the word’s use.

4. Copy the sentences from the dictionaries or from other things you’ve read.

5. Write one or two of your own sentences with the new word.

6. Answer these questions:

Can I use these sentences in a real-life conversation? How could I use them?

Why would I use them? Who will I use them with? Where will I use them?

About what subject?


Based on your answers to those questions, decide whether the word will be

personally useful for you to learn. Then try to use the new word within the next few days.


Need a dictionary?

I’ve added a tool in the right column where you can type in unfamiliar words and go directly to the Cambridge Online Dictionary to look them up.


More to come

We’ll talk about more of James Venema’s ideas on building vocabulary in an upcoming post. 

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