READ, read, read. That, and make the dictionary your friend. This may all sound like no-brainer advice for building your vocabulary, but like any other pursuit in life, the advice sits better in stomachs with the right constitution. By this, I mean discipline and diligence.
To encourage discipline and diligence, first find yourself a notebook, preferably ruled so your words don’t wobble, waver, or fall off the abyss. I call mine a Word Power Book—not the sexiest name on earth, but it sounds less lofty than “Word Bank” (as one of my student likes to call hers), or a Vocabulary Book (it’s just too much of a mouthful, that V word).
Depending on how fussy or precious you are, your Word Power Book could be an Azone, or a Moleskine, or a plain, no-frills school exercise book. It doesn’t matter. Content over dress is what matters.
Now, let’s say you’ve decided to embark on a daily reading regime of The New York Times this New Year.
Read, read, read, remember?
You come across this article in the Food Section: In Milan, a New Spin on a Century-Old Cocktail, published just yesterday, January 6, with this opening line:
More than a century ago, the Italian artists of the Futurist movement issued the first of their provocative manifestos — a call for art that would shock the country’s bucolic peasant society into the industrialized age.
You find two words you don’t know: “manifestos” and “bucolic.”
This is when your dictionary becomes your friend. Capture the entry in your Word Power Book. Give the word a number because if you don’t, you’d never ever get the thrill of seeing your wordcount hit #1,199, for instance, which is where I am today.
So, here’s how you’d manage your entry:
1. manifesto (n)
a public declaration of policy and aims, especially one issued before an election by a political party or candidate
Three points to note here:
a. keep nouns in singular
b. capture the part of speech, in this case, a noun
c. no caps because they should only be for words that begin exclusively with caps, like Herculean or Luddite or Lucullan
Now, on to the next word:
2. bucolic (adj)
of or relating to the pleasant aspects of the countryside and country life: the church is lovely for its bucolic setting.
On occasion, the Oxford (my go-to dictionary) offers a sentence to go with the word. Feel free to take it down, as I have done so above, or not. I almost never. This has nothing to do with laziness, but efficiency. Writing those extra lines can make the whole vocabulary-building exercise longer and more laborious, which is exactly what we want to avoid.
Sample sentences are nice to have, but between a dictionary-supplied sample versus the real one that brought you to the word in the first place, I’d prefer the latter.
Now that we’ve got two words—we’ll be hunting down a verb and an adverb soon—keep your reading eyes tuned in to discipline and diligence.
Discipline and diligence, as far as your vocabulary-building efforts go, boil down to this: every word you come across that you don’t know goes into your Word Power Book. That includes words you think you know, or half-know, or sort of know. Any time “sort of” creeps in, just tell yourself: “OK, get to work, look the word up.”
So, if you’re guessing that “precipitous” as in “precipitous slopes” (from Text 2 of the 2015 ‘O’ Levels comprehension exam) has to do with “precipitation,” put that down as one of those shaky, “sort of” words.
3. precipitous (adj)
dangerously high or steep
All good and simple so far, isn’t it? And I promise you it is.
Between a word power exercise of filling up your Word Power Book with 20 words from any reading material of your choice, and having to write a 350-word essay, what would you go for? One’s brute work, the other brutal.
Related: To Bump Up Your Vocabulary, Do This