Blog Archive

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Synonym Sophistication

A thesaurus is a great tool for adding variety to your writing (See Variety is the Spice of Writing 1/19/2012).  Once you develop the habit of seeking alternatives to the words that you find yourself using far too often, you’ll want to develop the more intricate practice of noticing the nuance differences between synonyms.  For example, if you look up the word “smart” in a thesaurus, you will see a list of words that have meaning similarities such as: astute, sharp, shrewd, clever, wise, intelligent, bright, sassy and with-it.  It is terrific to have such a selection but it’s important to understand that these words are not all totally interchangeable.  You should know that “shrewd” implies dishonesty, “wise” is generally used to describe people who are older and have more life experience and “with-it” is informal and used primarily in speaking.   With a standard thesaurus, however, you will not get much information regarding such differences between these words. 

Fortunately there are tools that you can use to get further information without looking up each individual word.  One tool that I recommend is the Longman Language Activator.  The Language Activator is a combination dictionary and thesaurus which groups similar words together to show differences through examples and usage notes.  It also includes phrases and other collocations for each meaning. 

Another tool that I like is the Thinkmap Visual Thesaurus.  This is a subscription service that displays synonym groups in a visual map, distinguishing nuance meanings in a clear and easy to use format.   The map for the word, “smart” looks like this.

You can click on each of the circles for more information about each group of words.  The annual subscription for the service is $19.95 but there is a free trial.
So explore some new tools and work to add sophistication to your vocabulary by choosing the best word for every situation. 

For more on great techniques to increase your vocabulary, see Variety is the Spice of Writing.

Thursday, February 16, 2012


I like to use analogies when describing new or complex concepts to my students.  An analogy is a comparison between two items that share characteristics.  Often the items being compared do not obviously share qualities and the analogy needs further explanation.  One might express the notion that the brain is like a vessel or bucket.  Knowledge is poured into it until it is full and once it is full, it can no longer accept more information.  Others might analogize the brain as an engine which can continue to take in fuel (knowledge) and process that fuel to move the person through life.  Your has some more good examples of analogies.

I’d like to analogize the process of learning a language.  I feel it is like learning a sport, say tennis.  When you learn tennis, you can begin playing with just a basic knowledge of the rules and some experience with a racket.  Likewise, you can begin communicating in English with a few words and some knowledge of the language under your belt.  However, if you want to improve your skills and compete with more advanced players, you must develop your skills through observation, practice, repetition and automatizing.  Serious tennis players will watch other players for ideas about how to react in certain situations and how to use the racket to their best advantage.  Similarly, English learners should observe other English speakers for examples of effective communication and use of the language.   Learners should then practice the skills and strategies they noticed and repeat them multiple times in a variety of situations until they don’t have to think about how to do it.  The response becomes automatic. 

Another way to analogize tennis and English is to think about the back and forth of a tennis game like a conversation where the ball is the topic.  One player serves the ball (starts the conversation) and the other player responds.  The way the second player responds depends on the way the first player started, so one must pay attention to the other player, anticipate their moves and be prepared with a response.  You must also be prepared to match the level of seriousness of the other player.  If you are friends just hitting the ball around for fun (chatting informally) you will play with less seriousness (use less formal language).  If you are competitors playing in a serious match, you be play with more seriousness and use all the strategies as effectively as possible.  Likewise if you are having a high-stakes conversation with an important potential business partner, you will use all of your linguistic skills and a high degree of formality in your conversation. 

Analogies are often found in literature as well as in the lyrics of many classic and modern day songs.  A good exercise for noticing analogies is to listen carefully (or read the lyrics) to some songs that you like and try to identify comparisons.  Here are some examples.

In Pat Benatar’s Heartbreaker, she sings, Your love is like a tidal wave, spinning over my head Drownin' me in your promises, better left unsaid.”

In Elton John's Candle in the Wind, he sings, “And it seems to me you lived your life like a candle in the wind.  Never knowing who to cling to when the rain set in.”

I enjoy analogizing.  It involves creativity and it can be a great way to remember new vocabulary words. There is no real right or wrong analogy as things can be viewed in many different ways.  I would love to read some comments about other analogies for the brain and learning a language.  What other analogies do you use regularly?  How can the use of analogies impact your language learning process? 

Monday, February 13, 2012

One Corpus, Two Corpora

The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) from Mark Davies at Brigham Young University is a useful tool for determining collocations, usage, synonyms and much more.  Essentially it is a searchable database of language samples of spoken and written, popular and academic contemporary English (1990-2011). It is free to use and although it takes a little bit of practice to learn all the different applications, there are many “help” icons that assist you along the way.  A search for the word "chart" in a corpus will generate a result that looks like this.

A new feature of COCA allows users to input an entire document, rather than individual words or phrases, and have the language searched for word frequency, “academic” words, and detailed information about all individual words that appear in the corpus.  Mark Davies adds,

You can click on any word in your text to get detailed information about the word (all on one screen) -- its overall frequency in COCA, its frequency in each genre (spoken, fiction, magazine, newspaper, and academic), the 20-30 most frequent collocates (nearby words), up to 200 sample concordance lines, synonyms, and related words from WordNet. There's no need to go consult other dictionaries or thesauruses or online-resources -- it's all right there, with just one click for each and every word in your text.
Check out this feature at 

If you’ve never used a corpus, I highly recommend familiarizing yourself. They are valuable tools for language learners and linguists alike.  Another completely free corpus that I find very useful is The Michigan Corpus of Academic Spoken English (MICASE)  This is specific to Academic Spoken English as the name implies and includes samples from native and non-native speakers.  You can also hear audio samples (with transcripts!) of a variety of English accents here. 

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

The Dictionary: Use It. Don't Abuse It.

In this post, I’m going to introduce some techniques for using a dictionary effectively for developing vocabulary.  First, let’s address a common practice that I don’t feel is very effective. 
DON’T study the Dictionary
An English learner who spends hours “studying” random dictionary words and definitions will largely be wasting their precious time.  That person who opens the dictionary to whichever page and starts reading might learn something about some words but will not likely learn what is needed to utilize the words comfortably and accurately.   Plus, whatever they learn, will likely not remain in their mind for long and they will find themselves looking up the same information over and over.
DO reference the Dictionary
When you encounter a word or phrase that is unfamiliar, of course you should look it up to learn more about it.  More than this, you should reference the dictionary when you ARE familiar with a word or phrase but do not really feel comfortable using it.  Chances are you understand this word or phrase well enough when you hear or read it because it is a part of your receptive vocabulary.  It may not be part of your productive vocabulary though if you cannot use it in speaking or writing.  Referencing the dictionary and especially paying attention to examples of how the word or phrase is used can begin the process of converting this to your productive vocabulary.  Then you’ll need to practice using the word or phrase in speaking and writing until a greater level of comfort is achieved.  Noticing can also be helpful here as you recognize how the word or phrase is used in context and incorporate those models into your own production.
DO pay attention to pronunciation notes in the dictionary
When you reference something, note the accepted pronunciation(s) and if you are using an online dictionary, listen to an audio sample of the word if it is available.  Then practice saying the word (yes, out loud) so you can hear yourself say it.  Maybe you’ve heard the word many times but never said it.  So say it and practice saying it until it rolls of your tongue easily. They go out, work it into conversation and pay attention to any feedback you receive. 
DO pay attention to Collocations
Some dictionary entries will mention word collocations.  These word partners are critical to accurate use of many words. 
For example, if you reference the word, REGARD, you might find the following collocations:
·         as regards
·         in regard to
·         with regard to
·         due regards
·         best regards
·         no regard for
·         without regard for
·         a deep regard for
For more information on Collocations, see the post from January 17, 2012. 
DO pay attention to Word Families
Word family members or sometimes called “related forms” of a word are very helpful to be familiar with.  Let’s go back to the word, REGARD.  A person who looks up this word and pays attention to this root form alone, will only increase his/her vocabulary by one word but it will be more valuable to take a few more moments to recognize these related forms and their uses. 
·         regarded (adj.)
·         regarding (adj.)
·         unregarded (adj.)
·         disregard (verb)
·         regardless (adj.)
·         regardlessness (noun)
·         irregardless (adj.)
·         well-regarded (adj.)
In general, dictionaries (as well as translators and other reference tools) can be very useful for independent language learners if used appropriately.  Your time is valuable, use it wisely and get the most out of your language study!

Thursday, February 2, 2012

Using TED Talks

One of my favorite sites, is TED Talks.  Here you can watch well-produced videos of presentations given by professionals from varied fields and with varied backgrounds.   They are excellent sources of information, as well as great examples for your noticing practice.  There is so much you can take away from just one presentation.  Here are a few things to “notice”:
·         How does the presenter start the presentation?  How do they draw your attention in and get you interested in listening?
·         Does the presenter preview the topics that will be discussed in the presentation?  Why might that be important for the listener?
·         How does the presenter use visual aids?  How are the visual aids organized? Notice the language used when the presenter refers to the visuals.
·         How does the presenter move his/her body, hands, head and eyes during the presentation?
·         Where does the presenter pause when speaking?  How long are the pauses?  Are there some shorter pauses and some longer pauses?  What effect do these pauses have on the listener?
·         Where and why does the presenter’s voice rise? Where and why does the presenter’s voice fall?
·         What emotion is the presenter transmitting with his/her language, posture, facial expressions and intonation?
·         Does the presenter use more formal or less formal language?  What effect does that have on the listener?  (Listen to a few speakers and compare formality levels.)
I would love to hear about the kinds of things you listen for when you practice noticing. Please share your comments so we can all learn from each other!

Monday, January 23, 2012

Parallelism Pointers

When writing something formal that others will read, it’s important to consider parallelism.  Parallelism involves the use of similar structures in sentences with multiple clauses or lists.  The best way to explain is to show some examples.

Not parallel: I follow directions and studying hard.
Parallel: I follow directions and study hard.
Parallel: I am good at following directions and studying hard.
Parallel: He likes to follow directions and to study hard.

Not parallel: This class requires a midterm project, a presentation and students take a final exam.
Parallel: This class requires a midterm project, a presentation and a final exam.

Not parallel: During the conference we heard lectures, met with colleagues and lunch was served. 
Parallel: During the conference, we heard lectures, met with colleagues and enjoyed a catered lunch. (active)
Parallel: During the conference, lectures were delivered, colleagues were introduced and lunch was served. (passive)
All of these sentences are comprehensible and the messages are easy for readers to understand. The difference is in the readers’ impression of the writer.  Use of parallel sentence structure shows attention to detail whereas multiple parallelism errors give the impression of sloppiness or carelessness.  Readers will also suspect that the writer is a non-native English writer if there are multiple non-parallel structures.
For more examples of parallelism, see Purdue OWL: Parallel Structures.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Variety is the Spice of Writing

When students get comfortable writing at a high intermediate or low advanced level, it can be difficult for them to push forward and improve beyond this point.  It is often the case that by the time they get to this level, their writing is “clear enough” and “accurate enough” for readers to understand.  This can give writers the sense that there is no need to improve their writing further.  To someone in this situation, I encourage you to read on and learn how to make ‘good writing’ even better. 

Pick up a book, a newspaper or a magazine.  Look at a well-crafted piece of English writing and notice the sentences.  You will probably see a wide variety of vocabulary as well as various sentence and paragraph structures.  You may note a mixture of shorter and longer sentences: simple, compound and complex sentences. There will be active sentences, passive sentences, sentences that begin with prepositional phrases, sentences that begin with gerunds, sentences that begin with infinitives. There will be present tense, past tense, perfect tenses, progressives, imperatives and conditionals.  There will be adjective clauses, adverb clauses, participial phrases and appositives.  All of this variety will be used fluidly to make each sentence unique and interesting, driving the reader to keep going.  You might not have noticed this before.  (For more information on “Noticing” as a language learning technique, see the post from January 12, 2012.)
Now look at a piece of your own writing.  Does your writing exhibit a similar level of variety?  Or are your sentences written from a limited selection of vocabulary and roughly the same length with roughly the same subject-verb-(object) format?  If you notice the later, I have some suggestions for increasing your  variety. 
First, consider the word-level.  Are your words selected from a limited range?  If so, there are many resources available for you to reference.  My favorite suggestion is to write with a thesaurus at hand. 

If you are unfamiliar, a thesaurus is a reference book (or online database) of synonyms.  So when you find yourself using the same words over and over, you can reference a thesaurus to learn of words with similar meanings that you can substitute and work into your vocabulary.  Say I’m writing an article review.  It might first look like:
Original: This article was interesting and I liked the writing. It was easy to read and I read it quickly.  I would like to read more articles from this writer and I think others in the field should also read this writer’s articles.”
After I wrote this, I realized that I overused the words (and the various forms of)  “article”, “like”, “read” and “write.”  With a quick check of the thesaurus, I can rewrite the passage to:
Revision: This article was interesting and I enjoyed the writing. It was easy to comprehend and I got through it quickly.  I would like to read more pieces from this researcher and I think others should also investigate this writer’s work.
With the replacement of a few synonyms, the passage is more varied, more interesting and elevated to a higher formality level.  Once you get in the habit of referencing a thesaurus, make an effort to incorporate new words into your regular vocabulary so your writing variety increases without the use of reference tools. 
You will find many types of thesaurus at your local book store or library.  Also, check out these online tools.
Once you have increased your word variety, begin working on your sentence variety.  Be sure that you are “in-the-know” about the types of sentences, phases and clauses that can be used in English writing.  An excellent resource for this is the Guide to Grammar and Writing pages: Sentence Variety and Types, Garden of Phrases, and Clauses: The Essential Building Blocks. These webpages have excellent explanations, examples and exercises to help you understand and practice these forms.  Then you can work to incorporate them into your own writing. 

While you do all this, keep paying attention to the forms you see when you read and make notes (mental or physical) on the ways writers incorporate variety into their writing.  Soon you will be writing at a more advanced level and reflecting more professionalism.

For more on great tools to increase your vocabulary, see Synonym Sophistication