Enlarging your vocabulary in English

There are dozens of very good books with lists of English vocabulary words that appear in tests such as TOEFL and SAT. The problem is, really, that there are too many books and too many words!


In my 27-year career of teaching English, I have observed that simply memorizing lists of words and definitions is the least effective way to enlarge your vocabulary. I can recommend two much better methods of adding new words to your active vocabulary ("active" in the sense that you use the words in daily conversation, rather than just memorizing the words for a test and then forgetting them right away!).
Here are the two methods:
1. dictionary-sentence in context-image.
2. analysis through word construction: prefixes, roots and suffixes.

1. dictionary-sentence in context-image.This is a labor-intensive way to learn selected words that you must know. For example, if you are a medical student and must learn the organs and glands of the human body, this way of learning will be very useful to fix those words in your mind permanently. Let's use the human "lung" as an example.

a. Look up the word in a good English dictionary. Be sure to note the word's origin (etymology).
LUNG: O.E. lungen (pl.), from P.Gmc. *lungw- (cf. O.N. lunge, O.Fris. lungen, M.Du. longhe, Ger. lunge "lung"), lit. "the light organ," from PIE *lengwh- "not heavy, light, easy, agile, nimble" (cf. Rus. lëgkij, Pol. lekki "light;" Rus. lëgkoje, Pol. lekkie "lung," Gk. elaphros "light" in weight.

Get the definition:
1. either one of a pair of spongy saclike respiratory organs within the thorax of higher vertebrates, which oxygenate the blood and remove its carbon dioxide
2. any similar or analogous organ in other vertebrates or in invertebrates
3. at the top of one's lungs ( in one's loudest voice; yelling)
b. Use the word in a meaningful sentence. "The bullet punctured his lung, causing him to have trouble breathing. They rushed him to the hospital."

c. Find an image of the word.
Human Left Lung
You can see that this method takes time and effort, so you can use it only with words that are vital to your vocabulary, as it would be too time-consuming to use with every new word.
The best method, in my experience, is this:

2. analysis through word construction: prefixes, roots and suffixes. Most English words are made from the same linguistic building blocks. Very simple words may just have a root (central part), while complex words may have a prefix (beginning part that indicates meaning in much the same way as a preposition), root and suffix (ending part that indicates meaning in much the same way as parts of speech.) These prepositions, roots and suffixes are often from Latin and Greek, two languages that historically provide the basis for the English language.

For example, the word "center" is from the Greek root "centr-" . The center of something is the middle part, as in city center, shopping center and the center position in basketball. Once you know this root, you can begin to guess what longer, less familiar words might mean.

You may need to choose a meaning for the word "eccentricity" on an SAT or TOEFL exam. Here are your choices:
a. something that's in the middle
b. a city where there are no cars allowed in the city center
c. the quality of not having the same center
d. electricity from a central source
How can you guess what this unfamiliar word, eccentricity, might mean using word analysis? Break it into parts:
ec is the prefix. It means "out" in Greek.
centr is the root. It means "center" in Greek
icity is the suffix. It is used to form nouns from adjectives.

So the correct answer is c, the quality of not having the same center. Eccentricity is the quality of being out of center, or not having the same center.


This method is also time-consuming, but very rewarding. Every prefix, root and suffix that you learn will add immeasurably to your vocabulary, as you will encounter these word building blocks again and again. Here's a link for commonly-used prefixes, roots and suffixes:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_Greek_and_Latin_roots_in_English

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