Developing your vocabulary

Learn how to use appropriate words and expressions in your writing and speaking and to constantly expand your vocabulary so you can express your ideas accurately and confidently.

Choosing appropriate vocabulary

It’s important to use words and expressions that fit the context so your meaning is clear. For example, different audiences for your writing will require different levels of formality: the vocabulary you use in an academic essay may not be effective for a blogpost targeting a popular audience. Consider the following questions to help you choose the most appropriate words for your audience and purpose:

  • What’s the exact meaning of the word?

    Words may be broadly similar in meaning but differ in important aspects of that meaning. Consider the difference between ‘the fragrance of flowers’  and ‘the odour of rotten eggs.’ Both words refer to the sense of smell, but fragrance has a positive core meaning while odour has a negative one. If you don’t know what a word exactly means, check it in a dictionary.

  • Is the word attached to a feeling?

    Compare the two sentences: ‘The freeway snakes through the town’ and ‘The freeway meanders through the town’.

    In this example, snake indicates negative feelings about the freeway while meander doesn’t.

  • What level of intensity does the word show?

    Many words with similar meanings describe different degrees of the same quality or action. For example, ‘comical’, ‘hilarious’ and ‘side-splitting’  show different degrees of funniness. Think about the intensity of what you want to convey when choosing words.

  • Is the word formal or informal?

    Go for formal words and expressions in business communication and academic writing. In the following examples, the second expression in each pair is more formal than the first.

    • come up with / create
    • one after another / at regular intervals
    • huge / considerable
    • enough / sufficient
  • Is the word polite?

    Words which describe negative qualities or sensitive issues too directly can be offensive. Good communicators consider the feelings of their audience.

    For example, when writing about childhood obesity, it’s more appropriate to use ‘children with weight problems’ or ‘children of an unhealthy weight’ than ‘fat children’.

  • Is the word specific or general?

    Use words with specific meanings whenever possible to make your message clearer to your audience.

    For example, avoid overusing general verbs such as ‘be’, ‘do’, ‘have’ and ‘get’, especially in academic writing, as they don’t accurately convey specific ideas. It’s better to use a more specific verb or verb phrase to strengthen your message. Compare the impact of the verbs in these sentences:

    • ‘To be successful, learners need to have high-level literacy skills.’
    • ‘To be successful, learners need to develop and demonstrate high-level literacy skills.’
  • What other words does the word often go with?

    Some words are frequently used together and therefore sound more natural in combination. This is called collocation. For example, we say ‘fast train’ not ‘quick train’, but ‘quick shower’ not ‘fast shower’. Similarly, it’s more natural to say ‘highly critical’ rather than ‘deeply critical.’

    You can use an online corpus, which is a collection of texts, to identify patterns of language use. For example, if you are unsure what preposition to use after a verb, simply type in the verb and see what prepositions appear with it in the examples provided.

Expanding your vocabulary

Learn vocabulary specific to your discipline

Good sources of specialised vocabulary include:

  • subject guides
  • reading packs and textbooks (especially with glossaries)
  • recommended websites and journals
  • resources by subject in the Library Guides.

You can create a list of terms that you see frequently, i.e. common key words in your field. Apart from a definition, also try to include the word form (noun, verb, adjective etc.), an example sentence for context, any synonyms (words with a similar meaning) and collocations.

This is an example from the field of education:

cohort: (n) a group, class or generation

  • ‘The first cohort was due to graduate in December.’
  • Synonyms: group, class
  • Collocations: student cohort; first cohort; this cohort

Become familiar with academic words and expressions

Many words appear frequently in academic contexts, and researchers have tried to document these. For example, the Academic Word List (AWL) contains 570 such words. Note words that you see often in your readings.

The Academic Phrasebank is a great resource for learning a wide range of academic expressions and sentence stems for different purposes.

Read widely and often

Wide reading provides models of vocabulary usage (e.g. collocation and sentence patterns). You can make notes of useful expressions to use in your own work. Apart from academic texts, also read non-academic books, novels, magazines, newspapers and a variety of other sources on topics that interest you. Read every day for at least 10 minutes.

Write often

Keeping a learning journal, blog or diary gives you opportunities to practise using new vocabulary items. Find readers for your writing so you feel more motivated to write. Ask for feedback on your choice of vocabulary and expressions.

Use a variety of expressions

Add variety in your writing by using synonyms and different ways to express the same idea. You can use a thesaurus, such as the one in Microsoft Word, to obtain a list of synonyms for a word. Make sure, however, that the synonym you use expresses exactly what you mean and is appropriate for your purpose.

Example:

Advertising aimed at children should be prohibited. Such a ban would help create a healthier social environment to protect young people from commercial interests.’

Notice that ‘ban’ is a synonym of ‘prohibit’, ‘young people’ is another way to say ‘children’, and ‘commercial interests’ refers to ‘advertising’ in a broad sense. Using different expressions helps you to avoid unnecessary repetitions in your writing.

Use a good dictionary

Before you use a new word, look it up in a dictionary. A good dictionary provides detail about the exact meaning of the word, its pronunciation and grammatical function, as well as example sentences. It can tell you whether a word is slang, colloquial or nonstandard English, and the discipline which usually uses the term. The Macquarie Dictionary is an excellent resource for Australian English. You can use subject-specific dictionaries to look up terms within a discipline (e.g. business, psychology etc.).

Be aware of idioms

Idioms are commonly used word combinations or expressions. These have very specific meanings that are not obvious from the words they contain, e.g. ‘a piece of cake’, ‘get the hang of it’, ‘an Indian summer’, and ‘after a fashion’. Many dictionaries list and define idioms if you look up the component words. For example, try looking up ‘Indian’ or ‘summer’ to find ‘Indian summer’. Idioms are generally more appropriate for speaking and non-academic writing.

Final tips

Building your English vocabulary involves not only recognising words but also being able to use them appropriately in context. Start by practising thinking in English what you want to understand and communicate in English.

It takes time to develop your vocabulary, so you will need to be patient and willing to continue your practice in the long run.

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