Using English for Academic Purposes: Vocabulary

Learning vocabulary

Recording vocabulary

When you meet new vocabulary, you need to use various techniques to help yourself remember the word.

First, though, you need to decide how important the word is for you and your subject. For some words it is enough to know just enough about a word so you can understand it when you hear or see it used in context. For other words, though, that you will need to use productively you will need as much information as possible about the words. In that case you may need to remember:

  • the pronunciation of the word - how to pronounce it
  • the spelling  of the word - how to spell it
  • grammatical information about the word: whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective etc. and which patterns it occurs in
  • which other words it typically occurs with, which phrases it typically occurs in - its collocations
  • the frequency of the word - how common the word is
  • which types of language the word is used in, formal or informal, spoken or written, biology or business etc. - the typical registers  of the word
  • the meaning  of the word - what it means
  • how the word is made up e.g. what other words or affixes are part of the word - its formation
  • which other words it is related to - which word families it is in
  • its  connotations - what other meanings a word has, as well as its main meaning e.g. is it a positive or negative word?
  • example sentences

There are 2 main techniques you can use to record this information. They are:

  • notebooks - paper or electronic
  • word cards - paper or electronic

If you decide to use a vocabulary notebook, you will need to decide how to organise it. Common ways are:

  • alphabetically - list the words according to their first letter A, B, C, D, ... Z. - 
  • date - list the words according to the date you first saw them - 
  • grammatical organisation - all the verbs together, all the nouns together etc. - 
  • topic - all the words related to a particular subject together - word families and lexical sets - 

Organising words alphabetically is fine when you want to know about a word that you hear or read. Topic organisation is better if you want to find a word to use productively in your writing or speech.

A good suggestion is to organise the main part of your vocabulary notebook by topic and have an alphabetical index at the back of the book which refers to the topic areas.

Exercise

Exercise

Another way is to use word cards. Typically you would have one word per card - write the word on one side and the meaning and other information on the other. Study your words regularly - look at the side with the word written on and see if you can remember what is on the other side.

There are various smartphone apps that you can use. If you have an iPhone or an Android phone and want to practise these words, you could try: Flashcards Deluxe.Or on an iPhone you might like to try iMemento.

Pronunciation

You will need to know the pronunciation of the word - how to pronounce it - and record it accurately. The English alphabet is not always very useful to indicate how to pronounce a word, so you will need to know how to use and understand the IPA symbols.

For example:

"medical" is pronounced /medɪkl/, "horses" is pronounced /hɔːsɪz/ and "economics" is pronounced /ekənɒmɪks/ .

              medical /medɪkl/

              horses /hɔːsɪz/

              economics /ekənɒmɪks/ 

It is also important to indicate the main stress in each word.

For example:

             medical /'medɪkl/

             horses /'hɔːsɪz/

            economics /ekə'nɒmɪks/

 

For more information see:  Speaking Pronunciation

Exercise

Exercise

Spelling

The spelling of the word - how to spell it - is very important. A good dictionary can help you. For more information, try: Writing Spelling. It is important to be aware of differences between UK and USA spelling and to be consistent in your use.

For example:

               UK - labour | USA - labor

               UK - economise | USA - economize

               UK - centre | USA - center

 

Exercise

Exercise

Grammar

It is necessary to include grammatical information about the word: whether the word is a noun, verb, adjective, adverb etc. Use abbreviation: N, V, Adj, Adv

For example:

"economy" is a noun, "economic" is an adjective and "economise" is a verb.

               economy (N)

               economic (Adj)

               economise (V)

If the word is a verb, you need to be able to remember any irregular forms. If it is a noun, you need to know whether it is countable or uncountable and if it has an irregular plural. It is also useful to record typical patterns which the word occurs in. This includes, for example, which prepositions follow a particular verb and which nouns in which places can be associated with a particular verb.

For example, the word "accuse" is typically used by law students as follows:

             e.g. The woman was accused of shoplifting.

Useful reference books are Grammar patterns 1: Verbs (1996) and Grammar patterns 2: Nouns and adjectives (1998)

Exercise

Exercise

Collocations

Which other words does the word typically occur with, and which phrases does the word typically occur in?

It is useful to record typical collocations in your subject. For example, business students might want to record phrases such as:

             a steady increase, niche marketingcompetitive market or unskilled labour

Tables can be helpful:

get
gain
win

promotion

 

Useful reference books are: Oxford collocations dictionary for students of English (2002) and Hill & Lewis (Eds.) (1997)

Exercise

Exercise

Frequency

It is useful to record the common words for your subjects. There are many words in English with similar means but sometimes you will find that one of the words is used more frequently than the others. For example:

Law:

              abet, abetting, abjured, abnormality, abolished, abolition, abuse

Business

             administers, advantageous, adverse, adversity, advertisers, affiliate

Music

             cappella, chanson, chant, chanted, chanting, chants, chord, chorus, chromatic, clapping, composers, compositions

 

Exercise

Exercise

Register

Which types of language is the word used in? We can think about the tenor - formal or informal, the mode - spoken or written, and the field - biology or business etc?

For example:

"put up with" is an informal word, typically used in speech; "tolerate" is the more formal equivalent, common in academic writing.

"integer" and "magnitude" are typically used in mathematics, whereas "debtor" and "creditworthiness" are used in business, and "biospheric" and "emissions" are related to environmental science.

             put up with - informal (speech)

             tolerate - formal (academic writing)

             integer and magnitude - mathematics

             debtor and creditworthiness - business

             biospheric and emissions - environmental science.

Exercise

Exercise

Meaning

You need to record the meaning of the word. See: - Dealing with meaning.

Formation

How is the word is made up? For example, what other words or affixes are part of the word?

"unskilled" is compose of the prefix "un" plus the past participle of the verb "skill"

"location" consists of the verb "locate" plus the affix "tion" which changes it into a noun.

              unskilled = un + skill + ed

              location = locate + tion

Exercise

Exercise

See Vocabulary: Building for more information.

Relationships

Which word family does it belong to? Word families are groups of words which share the same root.

For example,

               approximate, approximated, approximately, approximates, approximating, approximation, approximations

                photograph, photographer, photography, photo, photographic

Which other words it is related to?

For example:

Similar meanings (synonyms): "increase = rise"

Opposites (antonyms): "increasedecrease"

Part/whole (meronyms): "room/house"; "car/wheel"

General/specific (hyponyms): "fruit/apple"

                       decrease, fall, decline

                     = rise, go up, improve

                     cols. steady, slight, great, rapid, sharp

 

           Web

 

          fruit - hyponymym

 

Which other words are associated with it?

For example:

               house: detached, semi-detached, terraced, flat 

                            wall, floor, ceiling, roof, window, chimney, garage, garden 
                            old, modern, cheap, expensive

Exercise

Exercise

Connotations

Apart from the basic, dictionary, meaning, words have other meanings. For example, a word may be a positive or negative word? These are different in different languages so it is important to know the associations that a word may have in English.

For example:

a social science student, writing about people without permanent homes needs to remember that "vagrant" has negative connotations, compared with "homeless".

an HRM student, writing about discrimination legislation will need to be careful about using words such as "handicapped", "black", "blind", etc.

                vagrant = -ve; homeless = +ve

Example

It is always useful to record example sentences. For example, if you are trying to remember the word "emphasis", a sentence like the following will help you:

              e.g. The decision shows a new emphasis placed on the environment by Brian Mawhinney, Secretary of state for transport.

Exercise

Exercise