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How to learn vocabulary? Part 2. Noticing how and when to use new words/phrases

Let’s continue. In the previous part (part 1 here) we discussed how important it is to connect a new word to what you already know using associations, be them words, pictures, movements, feelings, experiences or other abstract concepts. Now it’s one step further: from the meaning to the usage.

We don’t speak in words or phrases.

You need to know how to use them in a sentence (in terms of grammar and connection with other words) and when they are appropriate (this is register or style: formal, informal, neutral, spoken, written; more about it later).

The easiest way is to pay attention to the context where you came across this word/ phrase (formal? informal? in a book? in somebody’s speech? were any emotions attached to it?).

Then look at its place in a sentence (how is it used grammatically? what words are around?). Once you’ve noticed how it is used, make your own sentence with it similar to the one you’ve just seen/ heard.

Here are some examples:

“Cheers!” Say, you’re with your new friends in a bar, everyone raises their pints of beer and says “Cheers!”. Like many social expressions, it’s a standalone one (like “thanks” or “bless you”), so you don’t add other words to them. In this case you keep repeating “Cheers” every time the pints go up. However (!), “Cheers!” is quite informal, so it may be inappropriate to say during a formal dinner with important clients. (Say “To our …” instead, e.g. “To our new project!”).

“A kettle”. It’s a noun, so we will look for verbs that come before or after: “Would you like a cup of tea? I’ll put on the kettle.” (so we put on a kettle). We’ll also look for adjectives: “Gosh, our electric kettle has broken down, again!” (a kettle can be electric, but not electrical + a kettle can break down, a verb that comes after). The register is neutral, as is for most objects. Your examples may be: “I put on the kettle after I have breakfast. And my electric kettle is good, it doesn’t break down.”

“Rustle”. It’s a verb, so we will look for nouns that come before or after it. “It was a wonderfully warm evening. Everything was quiet, only the trees rustled in the wind” (trees rustle, that’s a possible noun before). Register: the word is descriptive, so you’ll use it to set the scene of a story or describe this sound (more written than spoken). Your examples may be: “Now there’s no wind so the trees are not rustling.” Or “I like to listen to how the trees rustle in the wind.”

Two or three sentences may be enough to give you an idea how to use the word/ phrase.

If you want to go deeper, a dictionary is an excellent source of information (especially “examples from the corpus”) or Youglish.

Let’s give it a try in the comments, shall we? Write a word/ phrase you want to learn, copy a sentence with it where you came across it, make your own example =)

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