ENGLISCH/773: Questions to Mrs. Gobbledygook (131) Context clues (SB)


131. How to improve your vocabulary

Dear Mrs Gobbledygook

There are so many words in the English language. An Englishman starts improving his English when he is about one or two years old. If he learns just 5 new words a day, that's a grand total of 1825 new words in a year. A ten year old, therefore, already has access to at least 18.250 words. How will I ever be able to learn them all? And how can I learn the meaning of a new word without looking it up in a dictionary?

Yours sincerely

François Leclerc (France)


Dear Mr Leclerc

How many words has the English language? That's a question, nobody can answer. The English vocabulary probably has about a million words and the number increases day by day like in any other living language. Don't panic! In simple, everyday conversation we only use approximately 850 to 1250 words. Considering your calculations by learning only five words a day you should be able to talk English rather fluently within six month. But even if you make the effort of learning 15 new words every day - that's 5475 new words a year - you will never be able to know all the words of this language. Nor does a native speaker. That's why we have dictionaries. If you don't know the meaning of a word, you turn to a dictionary - preferably an English-English dictionary - and look it up. Although it is impossible to know all the words in the English language, you can learn the most important ones. After you 've learned them (there are about 2.500), you can continue learning new ones by getting the dictionary habit. By browsing through a dictionary you can always find some very interesting clues or language information, even without looking for anything special. A good dictionary is an important tool that will help you learn new words. Another important method is reading!

And this is an answer to your second question, how to learn new words without looking them up. Read a fetching novel or an exciting story. Recognize "strangers" by looking at "context clues". These are words or sentences that can help you to decipher the meaning of unknown words and phrases. How a word is used in a sentence can give you a clue to its meaning. It's a bit like doing a crossword puzzle and can be great fun.

Just read through the following examples and see if you can figure out what the expressions in quotation marks mean.

I was just "a-b-o-u-t t-o" open the door and leave the house when my telephone rang. I took my hand off the door handle, went to the phone and answered it. It was a wrong number.

The second sentence is the context clue. Jokes too, can contain very helpful context clues:

Paul: "What kind of "m-i-l-e-a-g-e" do you get with your car, Peter?" Peter: "Very good mileage. Around 35 miles to the gallon." Paul: "That's nothing. Columbus got the best mileage from his ship." Peter: "How's that?" Paul: "Well, just look how far he went on a galleon." (Gallon and galleon are homophones. They have the same pronunciation.)

The sentences before and after an unknown word are the context clues that will often help you to find out the meaning of the unknown word. Oftentimes, the word itself will give you a clue to what it means. For example, the word "u-n-k-n-o-w-n" which I use for the fourth time in this letter. There is the short word "know" in it which is one of the first words a student of English has to learn. Then there is the letter "n" attached to it. In this case we have a past participle used as an adjective. Last but not least we have the prefix "u-n-". In front of an adverb or adjective "un" means "not".

Context clues come in many different forms. So, read anything you fancy: technical books, novels, non-fiction, short stories, magazines, jokes, science fiction or even comic magazines, but read carefully and study the words. Take your time and if you find an unknown or unrecognizable expression try to figure out what each of the words mean. If you have no clue after all, start again with the professional help of an English-English dictionary. But only if you still don't know the meaning of the word look it up in a bilingual dictionary, which gives you the translations in your own language.

You will see that after a while your ability to recognize new meanings has improved greatly. It's an excellent training for all your future reading in English.

Don't overdo it. You can improve your vocabulary by learning a few new words every day. But remember that yard by yard it's hard; inch by inch it's a cinch,


Mrs Gobbledygook

3 April 2008