Ways of Improving Your Word Power
Gaining Fluency in English
Writing fluent English is both a skill and a craft that takes time, patience and a great deal of knowledge to perfect. You write and you write and you write, but you are never quite satisfied with what you turn out.
Only now and again do you produce a piece—letter, blog, article, official document or story—that pleases you and impresses other people.
Not enough, you say. You want to write your best all (or at least) most of the time.
My advice is to work on your writing in stages. Read a piece of writing that you admire whether, it be yours or someone else’s, and underline the words in it that catch your attention. Undoubtedly, the words you have chosen will fall into one of the following families or groups.
Nouns are things. Concrete nouns are words for things, as in horse and shoes, and abstract nouns are words for feelings and qualities, as in happiness and friendship.
A noun preceded by a pre-modifying determiner, for example “the house”, is a noun phrase.
Everyone knows that verbs are action words, for example running, cycling and skipping. However, not all verbs denote action, but describe mental functions. For example “John seems happy” and states of being “that is fair.”
Adjectives are words that describe nouns. For example, “the good dog” and “the bad man”. Nouns preceded or followed by adjectives are noun phrases. Examples are "the hot sun" and "the man over there".
Adverbs are words that describe verbs, for example, John ran slowly or Mary cycled quickly. Adverbs are also comparative, e.g, better and worse, and superlative, best and worst.
It is apparent that a wide vocabulary of these functional words is invaluable when you want to write a feature or article. Constant reading and learning new words is the best way to grow your vocabulary.
However, simply trying to learn from reading can be a slow and arbitrary process. In order to write well, you need to fix the words in your mind, to link them to other ideas, and to make constant use of them.
By practising the following exercises, you will widen your vocabulary and gradually master the techniques that come to your aid when you are faced with an unexpected writing task. It is wise to always have a dictionary at hand.
Hypernyms and Hyponyms
One way to expand your word power is by playing with hypernyms and hyponyms.
A hypernym is a generic word that refers to other words with a similar meaning, one example is “food”.
A hypernym refers to a group of hyponyms that fall under the “food” category, but have more specific meanings, for example, cheese, eggs, butter, fish and vegetables.
You can turn each of these hyponyms into a hypernym with its own categories and subcategories of words, for instance, hyponyms underneath “vegetables” might include potatoes, carrots, cabbage, onions, aubergine and broccoli.
Now, push the exercise further by creating subcategories of these hyponyms, for example, placing Golden Wonders, King Edwards and Kerrs Pinks under “potatoes”.
In the longer term, you can have great fun pinpointing the most obscure hyponym and transforming it into a hypernym by finding hyponyms to place underneath it.
For example, under “kitchen ware” you could place the word “jug”. And underneath “jug”, you can place “pitcher”, “ewer”, and so forth.
Synonyms and Antonyms
Synonyms are dissimilar words that have the same meaning, for example, fast, quick, rapid.
Since expressing similar ideas in a number of ways is the hallmark of a rich vocabulary, it is worthwhile expanding your knowledge of synonyms.
Set aside a notebook for the purpose of collecting groups of words with similar meanings or even, place them in a computer file.
Reading books and periodicals is one of the better ways to harvest and classify unfamiliar words. However, you can speed the process by opening a dictionary at least once a day, and selecting a word at random.
Record it under its appropriate classification, for example, “galoshes” will fall under “footwear”.
Every now and again, you will find a word that does not fall into any of your classifications – and you can create a new classification.
Soon, you will be in possession of a valuable tool that will come to your aid when you are writing a report, college essay, short story or novel.
Your synonym book is also a stepping stone to finding antonyms, that is, word pairs with the opposite meanings, for example quick/slow, day/night, black/white.
The use of antonyms is in evidence in many of our more famous poems.
In his Auguries of Innocence, poet William Blake constructs an entire narrative by playing with antonyms: A truth that’s told with bad intent/ Beats all the lies you can invent/ It is right it should be so/ Man was made for Joy and Woe…
Connotations and Associations
When we describe a word as having connotations, we mean that it has cultural and/or emotional associations in addition to its literal meaning.
For example, you want to build a narrative around a word like “fire”.
Write down all of the words that it evokes, even if these words do not mean the same thing. Here, I point out the difference between a connotation and a synonym.
Connotations surrounding the word “fire” could include heat, warmth, burning, bright, friendship, hugs, sympathy, tea and cake.
These are positive connotations. Negative connotations could include destruction, consumption, war, ruin and despair.
One, fine example of fire used as a theme with positive and negative connotations is found in the novel, Rebecca, by Daphne du Maurier.
When Mrs De Winter arrives at Manderly, the fires that the servants light in the library and morning room symbolize her new-found love with Maxim. At the end of the novel, fire destroys Manderly, symbolizing the revenge of Maxim’s eponymous late wife.
Pre and Post Modifiers
Pre and post modifiers are used to add colour and depth to nouns and noun phrases.
Take a phrase from the example text, “the cake”. Add interest to the phrase by inserting as many pre-modifiers as you can, for example,
“The sweet and delicious, chocolate cream cake”.
Now, finish the sentence by adding a post-modifier, in this case, a post-modifying phrase:
“The sweet and delicious, chocolate cream cake sat on the table”.
Now, have fun by adding a post or pre modifier to the noun phrase “the table”, for example, the heavily-laden table. Remember, the wider your vocabulary, the easier it is to add interesting pre and post modifiers.
Formal and Informal Language
With your expanded vocabulary, it is time to have fun creating characters. In a story, speech is the most profound way of revealing character.
For example, you are building a narrative around two characters. Jane, the hostess, is indoors awaiting her guest, Catherine. The fire is burning brightly and cake and other goodies await on the table.
When Catherine, arrives, she (Catherine) could either say: “I’m broke” or “my finances are limited”.
The expression “I’m broke” suggests a sloppy, uneducated Catherine, while “my finances are limited” evokes a Catherine who is an unfortunate professional worker.
We have already looked at antonyms, that is, word pairs with opposite meanings.
You can add meaning to a text by creating dichotomies of situation. We could begin the example text by writing something like:
"In the winter wind, Catherine shivered and pulled at her threadbare scarf, before knocking upon Jane’s front door. Through the window, she could see the fire in the grate burning brightly, while the sweet and delicious chocolate cream cake sat upon the heavily-laden table."
The dichotomy here is Catherine’s poverty in contrast to Jane’s prosperity.
So, from the word “fire”, you have spun an entire narrative, perfectly possible with the majority of words in the dictionary. How Catherine expresses her poverty to Jane depends on the type of character that you want Catherine to be, which will lead you to finish the story.
Remember that masters of word craft, with years of experience behind them, know that there is much more to learn. The truth is that fluent writing is rarely an accident and people with apparent writing expertise spend much time flexing their verbal muscles. With practice, you can be one of the subjects earning dividends from mastery with words.
Rebecca by Daphne Du Maurier
Auguries of Innocence by William Blake