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Four basic steps to a better vocabulary While there are not any magic shortcuts to learning words, the larger your vocabulary becomes, the easier it will be to connect a new word with words you already know, and thus remember its meaning. So your learning speed, or pace, should increase as your vocabulary grows. There are four basic steps to building your vocabulary: 1. Be Aware of Words Many people are surprised when they are told they have small vocabularies. “But I read all the time!” they protest. This shows that reading alone may not be enough to make you learn new words. When we read a novel, for instance, there is usually a strong urge to get on with the story and skip over unfamiliar or perhaps vaguely known words. But while it is obvious when a word is totally unknown to you, you have to be especially aware of words that seem familiar to you but whose precise meanings you may not really know. Instead of avoiding these words, you will need to take a closer look at them. First, try to guess at a word's meaning from its context—that is, the sense of the passage in which it appears; second, if you have a dictionary on hand, look up the word's meaning immediately. This may slow down your reading somewhat, but your improved understanding of each new word will eventually speed your learning of other words, making reading easier. Make a daily practice of noting words of interest to you for further study whenever you are reading, listening to the radio, talking to friends, or watching television. 2. Read When you have become more aware of words, reading is the next important step to increasing your knowledge of words, because that is how you will find most of the words you should be learning. It is also the best way to check on words you have already learned. When you come across a word you have recently studied, and you understand it, that proves you have learned its meaning. What should you read? Whatever interests you—whatever makes you want to read. If you like sports, read the sports page of the newspapers; read magazines like Sports Illustrated; read books about your favorite athletes. If you are interested in interior decorating, read a magazine like House Beautiful—read it, don't just look at the photographs. Often people with very low vocabularies don't enjoy reading at all. It's more of a chore for them than a pleasure because they don't understand many of the words. If this is the way you feel about reading, try reading easier things. Newspapers are usually easier than magazines; a magazine like Reader's Digest is easier to read than The Atlantic Monthly. There is no point in trying to read something you simply are not able to understand or are not interested in. The important idea is to find things to read you can enjoy, and to read as often and as much as possible with the idea of learning new words always in mind. 3. Use a Dictionary Most people know how to use a dictionary to look up a word's meaning. Here are some pointers on how to do this as a part of a vocabulary-building program: Have your own dictionary: Keep it where you usually do your reading at home. You are more likely to use it if you do not have to get it from another room. At work, there may be a good dictionary available for your use. At home, most people do not have a big, unabridged dictionary; however, one of the smaller collegiate dictionaries would be fine to start with. Circle the words you look up: After you have done this for a while, your eye will naturally move to the words you have circled whenever you flip through the dictionary. This will give you a quick form of review. Read the entire entry for the word you look up: Remember, words can have more than one meaning, and the meaning you need for the word you are looking up may not be the first one given in your dictionary. Even if it is, the other meanings of the word will help you understand the different ways the word is used. Also, the word's history, usually given near the beginning of the entry, can often give a fascinating picture of the way the word has developed its current meaning. This will add to the pleasure of learning the word as well as help you remember it. 4. Study and Review Regularly Once you have begun looking up words and you know which ones to study, vocabulary building is simply a matter of reviewing the words regularly until you fix them in your memory. This is best done by setting aside a specific amount of time each day for vocabulary study. During that time you can look up new words you have noted during the day and review old words you are in the process of learning. Set a goal for the number of words you would like to learn and by what date, and arrange your schedule accordingly. Fifteen minutes a day will bring better results than half an hour once a week or so. However, if half an hour a week is all the time you have to spare, start with that. You may find more time later on, and you will be moving in the right direction. In order to review words effectively, all the information on a word should be kept in one place—in a notebook, for example, or on an index card. Index cards are convenient because the words can be placed in alphabetical order, which makes them easy to find when reviewing; and the cards can be carried around with you, so you can study them anywhere. You should try to be systematic about studying, so that you are sure to review each word at least once every couple of weeks. Do not throw cards away, though; you can get a great feeling of accomplishment by looking at the growing stack of words you have learned and by occasionally glancing at an old card and thinking, “Once I actually didn't know the meaning of this word!”
The English language is always evolving, and over time we sometimes collectively change the meaning of a word. Whether this change is the result of a common usage error or has been deemed acceptable by official dictionary writers, it's often surprising to learn the real — or at least the original — meaning of some words. So are you sure you're using that word correctly? Here are 10 words that might not mean what you think they mean. 1. Bemused If you think this word means the same thing as a word it rhymes with, you're absolutely right. Unfortunately, most people choose the wrong rhyme. "Bemused" doesn't mean "amused, " though it's often used that way by mistake. It actually means "confused." If you have a bemused expression on your face right now, it's because this new information is blowing your mind — not because you think it's hilarious. 2. Decimate You're probably not totally wrong about what "decimate" means, but the error with this word is a matter of degrees. It does mean to destroy or eliminate something — but not completely. As the prefix "deci-" suggests, it actually means to reduce something by only one tenth. So if your retirement portfolio was decimated by the Great Recession, you actually got off easy, by only losing 10 percent of your money. 3. Disinterested Ever heard someone say, "I'm not going to watch the Super Bowl. I'm totally disinterested"? They probably mean they don't like football, but what they're actually saying is totally different. "Uninterested" is the word that means you find something boring. "Disinterested, " however, means you don't have any stake in the outcome because you're not invested in something. Now if your friend meant they weren't betting on the Super Bowl, "disinterested" would be correct. Unfortunately, most people aren't aware of the distinction. 4. Electrocute Ever accidentally stick your finger in an electrical outlet and get electrocuted? If that were true, you'd be dead and buried. "Electrocute" means to kill someone with an electric shock (think "execute" to help you remember). If you get a nasty shock from a malfunctioning appliance, you may be a little shocked, but you haven't been electrocuted. 5. Factoid "Factoid" is a relatively new word in English. It was coined by author Norman Mailer in 1973, and he meant it to refer to tidbits of information that everyone thinks are true, but actually aren't. According to this original use, "factoids" aren't facts at all, but rather fake news that people believe just because they've seen it written somewhere — tabloids in the '70s, Twitter today. The irony is that today people use factoid to mean a fun trivia fact — pretty much the opposite of what Mailer intended. 6. Ironic Isn't it ironic that people use this word incorrectly all the time? Nope. It's just funny. A lot of people — looking at you, Alanis Morrisette — use "ironic" to mean an interesting coincidence or just something that strikes you as sort of silly. It really means something totally unexpected — a twist you didn’t see coming. It can also refer to saying something unexpected, like a sarcastic "good job" when a waitress drops a tray of glasses. That's probably where the confusion began, since most people find sarcasm kind of funny. 7. Lied If you think "lied" has two meanings, you're in for a surprise. This is the past tense of only one word, not two, so you could be using it correctly only half the time. If you lied to your mother yesterday, you're not a good person, but you used the word correctly. "Lied" means to have told an untruth in the past. It is not the past tense of "to lie down" — that would be "lay." Lots of people get these conjugations confused, but you should say "I lay down after work yesterday because I was so tired." 8. Literally It may be tempting to blame this one on Rob Lowe's performance on Parks and Rec, but the reality is that his Chris Traeger character was poking fun at the many people who are confused by the word "literally." "Literally" means something that's real, true or exact. Most people use this word to mean the opposite, though, saying things like "My head literally exploded." If that were true, you'd have a real mess on your hands! This type of usage has become so common that dictionary bigwigs have added the figurative use of "literally" as a correct usage. Go figure. 9. Luxuriant "Luxuriant" sounds like "luxurious, " but it's not quite the same. "Luxuriant" means “abundant, " and not necessarily something expensive. You can have a luxuriant lawn that's lush with green grass, but it probably won't feel luxurious if you're the one in charge of all the mowing, fertilizing and weeding. 10. Penultimate The word "penultimate" means second to last, usually on a list of items. That's because "ultimate" means the last item, not necessarily the best one. Over time, however, people started to use "ultimate" to mean the best or most exciting thing around. While that shift became so common that it's now accepted, it also means that people began to use "penultimate" to mean extra-awesome — which isn't correct at all. The prefix "pen-" means "almost, " so using "penultimate" to mean "really great" doesn't even make sense. Alas, the road to changing definitions never did run smooth. Words of Wisdom So, did any of these definitions "literally" blow your mind? Since English is the language that probably has more words than any other, there's a lot to keep track of — so you're excused if you get three or four or even 10 of those words mixed up once in a while. Now that you know the difference, you can make sure that your speech and writing are truly top-notch.
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