How to increase vocabulary

To know the right word at the right moment is important. In fact, it is so important it can make or break your conversation or paper. It can be especially upsetting when you know the word but fail to recall it at the right moment. Coming up with the word minutes after you needed it only adds to the frustration. This situtation can be avoided by keeping your mind in gear, but what about an effective way to learn new words? There are several ways.

Reading

This is the most obvious choice. Read as much as you can and whenever you see a word or a phrase you don’t quite understand — write it on a separate sheet of paper. If you can’t figure out the rough meaning of it then look it up in the dictionary. E-readers like Kindle are especially good for that as they have a built-in dictionary which makes learning new words effortless and pleasant experience.

After writing the new words out it is neccessary to revise them. Morning is the best time to memorize new things — so have a quick read of your new list during breakfast for maximum effeciency. Writing sentences using the newly-memorized words is a great way to ensure you never forget them.

Important
Do not do this just for the sake of learning new words. It willl turn into a chore that way. What you should do is pick a book that you are interested in — maybe a book you have already read in your mother tongue. Learning something new is easy as long as the reading is fun for you.
Movies

Movies can be as good as reading or even better. It takes almost no effort to watch a movie, With movies you get to memorize pronunciation — knowing a new word is almost useless unless you know how to pronounce it right.

Movies also help you improve your listening comprehension. If you struggle to understand what the characters are saying then you might need some time to adapt to their accents. If it doesn’t help then consider using subtitles. Another approach is to first watch it subtitled, write out all the unknown words, memorize them and then watch it again to test your knowledge.

Flash Cards

A flash card is a small piece of paper which has a word written on one side and it’s definition on the other. Alternatively, you can write the same word in your language.

It is a proven and effective way to learn new things — not just new words, but facts, technical data and much more. Not only do flashcards help learning, they also come very handy in revisions.

Anki is a great flashcard tool. It’s free and available for download both to PC and smartphones/tablets.

Word Lists

This is handy when you need to prepare to a certain topic (i.e. “Family”, “Education”, “Hobbies”). A word list will contain most common words and phrases on this topic. Here is an example of a short list of words on “Education” from speaklanguages.com:

School
classroom
blackboard
whiteboard
chalk
curriculum
grade
term
spelling
to spell
headmaster
head boy
prefect
school governor
register
assembly
break
Related Verbs
to sit an exam
to fail an exam
to pass an exam
to revise
to study upUniversity
lecturer
undergraduate
Masters student
PhD student
Master’s degree
Bachelor’s degree
semester
student loan
tuition fees

As you can see the list has both single words and phrases as well as verbs. Most of the time it is easier to increasy vocabulary if the new word share a theme.

Conclusion

Whichever way you choose you should remember one thing — it’s not that difficult to learn ten new words in a day. It’s learning 10 words each day for a month, that is more. Keep following the “10 new words” rule for a 365 days and by this day next year you will have increased your vocabulary considerably!

Formal and Informal Vocabulary

This entry is about differences in vocabulary of formal and informal styles. For general differences, see this article.

Both formal and informal vocabulary can be found in all spheres of the language. As the language becomes more liberal, combining these two groups of words gets more common. Below is an example list of words and expressions in formal and informal registers.

What does ‘formal’ mean? Simply put, it means something or someone following established norms, traditions and habits. A formal letter should have certain structure and vocabulary, usually more official and strict. Think of formal as a rough synonym for ‘official’.

Vocabulary for letters

InformalFormal
To ask for helpTo request assistance
To tell, to let knowTo inform, to notify
ProblemIssue
Speak toAddress smb.
Talk aboutDiscuss, consider
Fix, take care of, put rightRectify, amend
I think that …I believe/hold it that …
I want to …I wish to …
I’m ready to …I am willing to …
I’m angry about …I am dissatisfied with …
Deal with, take care ofManage, resolve, settle
Put up withTolerate, bear, endure
Bring upMention
Take awayRemove
ThanksI am grateful/thankful for …
I’m sorry about …I regret about …
I’m writing aboutI am writing regarding
I’ll get in touch …I will contact …
If you have any questionsShould you have any questions

General formal and informal vocabulary

InformalFormal
AndAs well as …
ButWhereas/While
So, in this mannerThus
If …Should … /Whether …
If … or notWhether … or not
For sure/CertainlyDefinitely/Assuredly
ManyNumerous/Several
GetReceive
KeepRetain

It is recommended to stick to either formal or informal words whenever possible. In other words, don’t mix two registers. It is as important as consistency in using English and American spelling. However, using two registers in your speech is not a serious error. At least as least as far as your speech is concerned. You should nevertheless pay attention to your writing — if you can use a less colloquial expression in your formal letter then you should do so. Sometimes mixing can’t be helped — for example, using phrasal verbs in a text. Phrasal verbs give life to your writing, so you shouldn’t abstain from using them. But such things as contracted forms or slang words — they do not belong in a formal text.

Which register should I use?

The degree of formality is usually decided by the following factors:

  • How well you know the person you’re writing to — the better you know the person, the less formal your writing will be (within reasonable limits)
  • The purpose of your letter — business correspondence tends to be more formal
  • The relative position of the person you’re writing to — a letter to your boss will be strictly formal. A letter to your subordinate is more likely to be semi-formal or fairly informal.

Use your judgement and common sense to decide on the register. For example, a letter to your boss who is much older than you, but whom you know very well is likely to be semi-formal, despite of his age and position. Conversely, if you are the head of department writing to a junior staff member whom you do not know, your letter should be on the formal side.

Conclusion

Bottom line is: if you are unsure whether to use formal or informal words, then stick to more respectable and tactful formal vocabulary. Nobody is going to hate you for being too formal. You will get a funny look or two if you overshoot with formality, but that is definitely not the end of the world!

On the other hand, opting for informal style and vocabulary in certain situations may be tactless and even rude. This in mind, use this simple rule:
When in doubt, keep it formal!

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Intensifiers or synonyms to “very”

To give stronger meaning to an expression you use a word called an intensifier — like “very”. To make your speech and writing more varied you should know synonyms to very as it tends to be used too much. Learn this once and you will never have to embarrass yourself with repeating it three times in the same sentence!

Quite

Quite is a universal replacement for very. It collocates with virtually any adverb and adjective. There is a catch though — the meaning of this word is different in American and British English. Quite in British English means “somewhat, to some extent” while American English quite means “very”.
Examples: These biscuits are quite tasty — you should give them a try. We were quite thrilled to hear the teacher’s speech

Really and extremely

Extremely is the strongest of all intensifiers. It is also somewhat formal, so it is more often to be found in letters and texts rather than speech.
Examples: It was extremely careless of you to leave the door opened. She is usually extremely rude to everyone

Really is quite strong too. It is fairly informal, occurring in everyday speech. If you use it, then you mean that something was considerably more intensive than usually, you put great emphasis on it.
Examples: He is really good at singing (He is a much better singer than many others). They stayed at this really expensive hotel (The hotel was considerably more expensive than other places)

Fairly, somewhat

These “intensifiers” actually serve the opposite function – they weaken the word that follows. They show that the quality is present but limited.
Examples: He is fairly good at football (He isn’t too good, probably below average). He is somewhat famous in this part of the country (He is famous, but not so much)

Absolutely, totally

Both are nice alternatives to very. The difference is that they are used with words that have “extreme” meaning — words that already mean the highest degree of something: He is a very smart boy. But: She is absolutely brilliant. Word brilliant is “extreme” so you cannot say very brilliant.
More examples: It was absolutely ridiculous of John to bring that up. They had spent the night in an absolutely gorgeous place

Summary

Knowing these alternatives to “very” is nice indeed, however don’t feel obliged to use all of them in the same text. Above all, do not use them with every adjectives as some students tend to — this deprecates the value of the intensifier as you put it everywhere. Every intensifier has to be used for a reason. This applies both to your writing and your spoken language.

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Formal and Informal English

There are two registers in English — formal and informal. Formal language is more common for official speeches, writing, academic texts. Informal (also known as colloquial) finds its application in speech and writing that take place among friends or people that know each other well.

You are likely to encounter assignments with formal and informal styles in your IELTS Task 1 General, CAE Letter writing and TOEFL writing. Should you choose to enter a college or university, most of your academic papers will have to be in formal style. Your opinion articles however will remain to be informal.

Formal style
  • Differences in vocabulary (Allow instead of let; beverages, not drinks; appropriate, not proper). See formal and informal vocabulary for more!
  • No contracted forms of words (He is, not he’s; We are not we’re; there are not there’re)
  • Use of passive constructions to make the statement sound less categorical. This includes distancing(also known as hedging) and passive voice:
    1.1
    Distancing/hedging is a way to make the saying more vague, to distance yourself from the opinion you express. It makes you sound like a messenger rather than the author of this opinion
    Examples: Some people think that alcohol should be made illegal
    1.2 Use it to make your expression more tactful and polite.
    Examples: It seems that you have forgotten to greet the guests; You might want to park your car on the other side of the street next time, it is forbidden to leave your vehicles here
    1.3 Hedging comes in handy to communicate information that is unconfirmed. This way the speaker will feel responsible should the information he gives turns out to be false.
    Examples: It is believed that the troops will leave the country in two weeks; They seem to be supportive of our ideas
    For more information on hedging constructions visit this page of uefap.com website — it has a comprehensive list of hedging/distancing devices
    2. Use of passive voice to move the focus of sentence to action rather than the thing or person.
    Examples: I was forced to go to that party; The food has been bought by my mother; The money had been paid in full
  • Multiple clauses within one sentence. (President Obama thought that this situation should be dealt with assertively and as soon as the conflict is over the country’s foreign policy has to be reconsidered)
    Such unnecessarily long sentences are typical for formal writing. I advice whenever possible to make your sentences more concise, easier to read.
  • Avoiding use of phrasal verbs when possible (To continue, not to go on; To concede, not to give up)
Informal (colloquial) style
  • Use of ellipsis. Ellipsis is leaving out words from sentence without making it more difficult to understand. Below are examples of elliptical sentences with full sentences in brackets
    Examples: Write to you soon (I will write to you soon); Got to go (I have got to go); See you later (I will see you later)
  • Informal punctuation. Exclamation marks(!) and ellipsis (aka triple dot (…) have their use in informal text, but  never in a formal one.
  • You are encouraged to use:
    1. Phrasal verbs. They make your text more cohesive, easier to read.
    2. One- or two-clause sentences. Shorter sentences generally help understanding the gist of your text or speech.
    3. Contracted forms (He’s, we’re).
    4. Slang and set expressions. See formal and informal vocabulary
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English language collocations

Collocations are words that combine well together, making set phrases. “Do your homework”, “a brief period”, “a bunch of flowers” — all of these are collocations, accepted combinations of words. It is one of the fundamental aspects of natural English. Good knowledge of collocations makes your speech sound effortless and cohesive.

Why you should learn collocations

  • Proper use of collocations makes your speech and writing more natural. You say Do me a favour, not make me a favour
  • Gives you more freedom to paraphrase your ideas correctly. Examples: to get a job, to find a job, to look for a job
  • Collocations are tough to guess if you don’t know them. It takes a very developed “feel” of the language to guess them correctly

Types of collocations

  • Noun+noun. (a flock of birds, a giant of a man, file and rank)
  • Noun+adjective. (a major problem, a key point, a plausible outcome)
  • Noun+verb. (I like to watch TV; he shut the door)
  • Verb+adverb. (to step lightly; he easily defeated him; they barely moved)
  • Adverb+adjective (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that)

This is a list of basic collocation groups. There are some more, but for now we shall concentrate on those above.

There are two ways to learn new collocations. You can use specialized dictionaries and dedicated textbooks for that. Alternatively, you may want to note any collocations in text you read and write them down. Of course, you have to be experienced enough to be able to recognize them.

This article contains the most basic collocations. They are grouped by words rather than types. I believe such grouping makes more practical sense. To make sense is a collocation too by the way.
Some verbs have explanations (in brackets), mostly more complex ones. All of the verbs have illustrative examples.

Collocations with “do”

Do a favour Do me a favour, stop pestering me with your problems
Do one’s best (try very hard to achieve smth.) — I did my best and we won
Do the dishes/cleaning/laundryHave some tea, I have to do the dishes
Do one’s hair (to comb, wash, arrange hair) — I want my hair done
Do damage/harmLast night’s storm did much damage to the house
Do an experimentThey have done some experiments on animals

Collocations with “make”

Make a fuss (to cause argument, commotion) — She made a fuss over the fact that the waitress didn’t smile at her
Make noise — The noise her rusty old car was making could was terrible
Make a choice — The choice had to be made as soon as possible
Make a mistake — Making such mistakes is unacceptable
Make a phone call — She has to make a few calls before noon
Make a decision — Making this decision wasn’t easy for either of us
Make an effort (to attempt, to try to do something) — They made an effort to reach out to them

Collocations with “get”

Get upset He got upset because of your behaviour
Get better (to recover e.g. from illness) — Our dog is getting better
Get angry You shouldn’t get angry at him, he’s too young
Get married Nowadays people get married in their thirties
Get permission I got the permission to leave from my boss
Get drunk Last Friday we got so drunk I don’t remember anything
Get up (to wake up or to stand up) — Get up, it’s time to go
Get lost (to lose one’s way) — Once she got lost in the woods there
Get away (to run away or to remain unpunished) — I don’t understand how does he manage to get away with his behaviour

Collocations with “go”

Go hiking/jogging/sightseeing Would you like to go jogging with me early in the morning?
Go to bed After the army I go to bed at 10 pm sharp
Go missing (to get lost) — The lady went missing two days ago
Go abroad (go to another country) — We don’t go abroad very often
Go mad (become crazy) — There’s something wrong with Jack, I think he went completely mad
Go quiet (become silent) — Suddenly, the street went completely quiet

Collocations with “catch”

Catch a cold (get or suffer from cold) — He forgot his cap and caught terrible cold last night
Catch a taxi/bus/train Hurry up or we wont be there in time to catch out train!
Catch smb red-handed (catch committing crime) — The robbers were caught red-handed by the police
Catch sight of smb (notice someone) — I caught sight of your yesterday evening in the mall
Catch smb’s eye (to attract attention) — The girl by the arcade machine really caught my eye

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Spelling and Words Easy to Spell Wrong

Spelling is a crucial aspect of your CAE or IELTS exam. A misspelled word will be seen as a mistake even if you guessed the word right. Wrong spelling in your essay will seriously reduce your overall score. At times spelling can be as simple as just paying attention to what you are writing. Other times though it can be tricky, especially when it comes to words borrowed from other languages, namely the French ones (like connoisseur).

A comforting fact is that ability to spell has little to do with your overall intelligence. Many famous writers were known for being very bad at that (spelling, that is).

How to improve your spelling

The one and only surefire way to increase your spelling literacy is to memorise words. Reading helps and so does looking words up occasionally whenever you have doubts about the correct way of spelling them. You can use flashcards to revise problematic words. Anki is probably the best free software that help memorising things — vocabulary, spelling and much more!

British or American spelling?

As you should already know by now, there are minor differences in spelling and more serious differences in vocabulary. Even though mixing British and American vocabulary isn’t punitive, you absolutely have to be consistent with your spelling. So if you choose to stick to British spelling (e.g. centre, cheque, judgement) then omitting “u” in “valour” or “labour” will be regarded as mistake and scored accordingly. Here is a basic reference table to AmE/BrE spelling:

 

American English

British English

Color, valor, honor, humor etc.

Colour, valour, honour, humour etc.

Theater, center, fiber, liter etc.

Theatre, centre, fibre, litre etc.

Realize, analyze, apologize, colonize etc.

Realise, analyse, apologise, colonise etc.

Traveler, enrollment, fulfill, jewelry, marvelous etc.

Traveller, enrolment, fulfil, jewellery, marvellous etc.

Offense, license, pretense etc.

Offence, licence, pretence etc

Words with difficult spelling

a lot
absence
accidentally
accommodate
achievement
acquaintance
acquire
advice(noun)
advise(verb)
amateur
analysis
apartment
appearance
argue
ascend(verb)
ascent(noun)
assistance
athletic
attendance
balance
beginning
belief(noun)
believe(verb)
beneficial
business
cemetery
choose
column
committee
conceivable
conscience
conscientious
conscious
controversial
controversy
criticise
definitely
disappearance
disappoint
discipline
dissatisfied
dormitory
effect
eighth
eligible
embarrassing
encouragement
environment
equipped
exaggerate
excellence
exhilarate
existence
experience
explanation
fascinate
foreign
forty
fourth
generally
government
grammar
guarantee
height
hierarchy
humorous
hypocrisy
immediate
incidentally
incredible
independence
inevitable
intellectual
intelligence
interesting
laboratory
leisure
license
lightning
loneliness
lose/loose
maintenance
marriage
mathematics
necessary
neighbo(u)r
ninety
noticeable
occasionally
occurred
omitted
opinion
paid
parallel
paralysis
particular
pastime
performance
perseverance
personal
personnel
perspiration
physical
possession
possible
practically
precede
preference
preferred
principal
principle
privilege
probably
pronunciation
pursue
quantity
queue
questionnaire
receipt
receive
receiving
recommend
restaurant
rhyme
rhythm
ridiculous
schedule
seize
sincerely
succeed
succession
technique
threshold
tomorrow
unnecessary
weather
Wednesday
weird
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