General Question

prasad's avatar

Where can I learn about usage of words?

Asked by prasad (3826 points ) August 20th, 2011

I am trying to improve my vocabulary & English usage in general. To improve, I mean, learn & understand meaning(s) of new words, and know the usage & connotation of words. For example, “audacious” means bold (or recklessly bold), and is used in negative sense. How should I go on building a good vocabulary? And, able to use it properly?

I will list down some points, where I think, I need to improve upon and where I would need your advice.

1) When I read English newspapers or books, I come across some sentences that I fail to comprehend. I look up words in dictionary, and even after understanding meaning(s) of the word, I don’t understand it completely. For example, a tall order, reservations in minds, invalid ill, etc. I fail, may be because, I don’t know other meanings and implied meanings of words. I work with popular one or two meanings.
2) Use & meaning of quotation marks, for example, in news headlines such as : Police identify 42 Maval ‘Conspirators’ (appeared in August 14, 2011, first page, lower half portion).
3) Correct use of comma (,) & inverted comma (;) in sentences.
4) Writing essays or reports. I wonder which words correctly fits in a particular sentence. Also, I find difficulty in starting & ending an essay (introduction & conclusion).
5) When to use “a, an, or the” and when not to, take for this case the above sentence : Also, I find difficulty in starting & ending an essay. Is it right to use “an” here or not?
6) Phrasal verbs. Example, meaning of “give” & “give up” are completely different.
7) And, some general doubts like when to use word “awesome”? What does it mean exactly? Can you give some examples (on awesome/awful/awfully)?

I don’t expect you to answer all of the above doubts, you may elucidate (I guess, I am right on this choice of word) one or any number you would like to. I thank you in advance.

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12 Answers

fremen_warrior's avatar

Take up English studies (go for Linguistics if you really want to get the hang of it all) at Uni, read classical literature, watch TV Shows in English – it will all force you to really delve into the language (and all you need is an internet connection, all the dictionaries are online for you to use, just google them). If you have a problem with a phrase for example, google it, using brackets, and add the word ‘meaning’ or ‘definition’ to your search, like so:

“chip off the old block” meaning

In most cases you will find what you need this way, like on this site here:

http://www.phrases.org.uk/meanings/chip-off-the-old-block.html

Other than that, take up private lessons with a tutor or at a language school.

Hope this helps :-)

Hibernate's avatar

Watch movies on your pc using English subtitles. Take time and scroll back/rewind as many times it’s necessary to improve some words. Use online dictionaries to translate those expressions you don’t understand. Sometimes it helps to check even those you know for a much larger perspective.

prasad's avatar

Thank you very much.
@fremen_warrior that is a really good collection of phrases, and quite simple explanation too. I will bookmark it for my reference.
@Hibernate Subtitles! I forgot about it. I used it when I could not understand pronunciations.

Well, here is a website I have found while surfing; I like it.

Earthgirl's avatar

“tall order” is sort of slang. There are many dictionaries of both British and American slang on the internet as well as colloquialisms and idioms. This is only one-
http://www.englishdaily626.com/idioms.php
I am sure there are others which are better but I am not that familiar with them. I would need to make a more thorough search to evaluate which are the best. I love old slang, new slang and colorful colloquialisms.
I applaud your desire to completely understand the grammatical structures and their proper usage. I have no patience with strict rules of grammar. Since I write nothing of scholarly import and my job doesn’t require it, I suppose that is ok. I am sure I use commas incorrectly all of the time. Probably even in this short answer, lol.

This link explaining reference works on English vocabulary followed by a short bibliography may be of use to you.
http://www.cgu.edu/pages/797.asp

zenvelo's avatar

I see three basic questions in your post:
1. Vocabulary
2. Learning english idioms
3 Grammar and punctuation.

For the 3rd one, I recommend Strunk and White’s Elements of Style . It is short but authoritative on writing.

For vocabulary, try some books like 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary, keep reading english newspapers, and watch english language television. Those will also help with idioms and slang. Read the newspapers that are written well, such as the New York Times of the International Herald Tribune. And classic movies with a lot of dialogue are also good, such as movies with Cary Grant or Jimmy Stewart, anything by Alfred Hitchcock.

Idioms are the hardest part of a language to learn, because it changes and may be beyond any dictionary or textbook. But one way to work on it , and help your spelling (since english is inconsistent in spelling) it to try a lot of crossword puzzles. Start with relatively easy ones, but make sure they are for adults and not kids. They take practice, and look at the answer when you get stuck, since you are training your mind.

fremen_warrior's avatar

@zenvelo : 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary – lol I have this one at home :D Kinda old, still good though

CWOTUS's avatar

This is “a tall order”. But let’s get started.

1. To start with, that expression is an idiom. That is, it’s a phrase, and not based on individual word meanings. You can understand “order” and the adjective “tall”, but that won’t help you with “tall order” which has its own meaning. You also referred to “a reservation in the mind”, by which I think you meant “mental reservation”. This is another idiom, though it should be possible to understand it by understanding the individual words. You need a dictionary that will include idiom phrases along with words, so that under “order”, for example, you would also see a definition for “tall order”. (You might even see that defined under “tall”.)

2. When single quotes are used in the way you show in your example, it means that the use of the word is questionable, based on its meaning. For a common enough example, when we are young we are often taught that “the policeman is your friend”. When we grow older and some of us have problems with the police, then we might refer to ‘the friendly policeman’ in a sarcastic way. Those reading our words would understand that we don’t really mean that the policeman was friendly, we mean the opposite. In your headline example, I presume that someone in a position of authority has decided that the Maval people conspired to do something bad, but the headline writer questions whether they really were conspirators.

3. The semicolon (; – not ‘inverted comma’) is often used as a conjunction between independent clauses. “The dog is brown; she is mine,” is one way that it can be used. It is also often used as a “list separator” instead of a comma, when some of the items in the list include commas. So: “I had a steak; baked potato, with butter and sour cream; peas, and ice cream for dessert.” Separating the listed items that way makes it clear that “butter and sour cream” went with “potato” and were not a separate course in the meal.

4. On writing, you’ll just have to read and write more. I suggest that as a new writer in English – which you do quite well already, I think – you should avoid shortcuts such as ”&” and too many abbreviations. Those are good enough for texting and highly informal communication, but you need to learn to write formally first before you can slip into informality.

5. Foreign users often have trouble with English “articles”: a, an and the. “The” is used when the item being indicated is unique: the president, the vice-president, the senator (when there’s only one in the room, or the one being indicated is clear). “A” and “an” are used depending on the sound that starts the following word: a senator, an apple. We would not say “an senator” or “a apple”. I don’t know the formal rule; all I know is how to do this by sound.

6. “Give up” is another idiom. When meanings aren’t clear based on the meanings of individual words, then look for the idiomatic phrase. Also, unfortunately, many English writers – including native speakers – make mistakes and misuse the language. It’s something we all have to get used to.

7. Some words take on slang meanings that have nothing to do with what they originally meant, and it takes awhile for the new meanings to be incorporated into dictionaries. For example, if you had read about something being “cool” in the 1950s, you might have wondered how a song, for example, could be “chilled”. Likewise “gay” in the 1960s, for example. You know the slang meaning now (in fact, it has mostly taken over from the original meaning), but you would not have understood the word simply by looking in a dictionary that defined “gay” as “happy and joyful”. Awesome is the new cool.

I hope this has helped; I look forward to more of your questions.

gailcalled's avatar

@prasad: For sentences or short paragraphs, use us. There is a subculture here who love to fine-tune this stuff..

For example:

How should I go on building a good vocabulary? It’s idiomatically ”How should I go about building….” Don’t ask for a logical explanation. There isn’t any.

Awesome now means so many different things that you’d be better off never using it.

Originally it meant “generating feelings of awe.” Now you can use it to describe a haircut, a candy bar, the Sistine Chapel, or getting accepted into graduate school. It has almost lost all meaning.

I will list down some points, where I think, I need to improve upon and where I would need your advice.. This is grammatically correct and clear. However, this is better.

I will list (set down) some points that confuse me. Please advise me how to be clearer. You can’t improve points.

I congratulate you on your present grasp of English. What’s your native tongue?

You learn the subtle stuff bit by bit and over decades. If

Sunny2's avatar

I congratulate you on how well you use English already. You are working on the hardest part of any language. I agree about movies with subtitles. You’ll hear more and more little details as you go. Perhaps you have a friend who would be able to correct the small things that are just slightly wrong. Good luck. English is a hard language to learn because of all the different pronunciations and meanings.

missingE's avatar

Strunk & White sucks (it’s completely inconsistent). Your essentials should Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage or Fowler’s Modern English Usage, and then also get ahold of Style Towards Clarity and Grace.

As for getting a feel for/understanding (colloquial) English, definitely browse around UrbanDictionary. Yes, it can be juvenile. Yes, it’s all very informal. But it’s also the most approachable and true reflection of English as it’s being used day to day.
This is an entry for “awesome”:
The highest rank of a ‘cool’ saying to describe a person(s).
Awesome is greater than cool, wicked, sick, super, kick-ass, and mega put together.

You’d also do very well to check out whatever’s on TV or the news.

prasad's avatar

Thanks all of you!

@Earthgirl With tall order (4 a) as defined in Merriam Webster’s collegiate dictionary and tall in their kids version, I understood it as order with large amount.Thanks for the American idioms. What I liked about it is, idioms are used in examples with clarified meanings.
@zenvelo I will consider the book 30 Days to a more powerful Vocabulary later. I have been advised to go for Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis.
@CWOTUS Extra thanks for your extra efforts to make your response more clearer! I looked up reservation in Merriam Webster, and took it as doubt; so that I can say ‘I have reservations about that plan’ instead of ‘I have doubts about that plan’. Explanations on quotations & semicolon are really good & informative. This video on articles gave me the needed information how to use a, an, and the.
@gailcalled Thanks. I will be pleased to know subtle fine tuning to improve my English. Well, Marathi or मराठी is my native language; and Hindi, I know as national language of India.
@Sunny2 Thanks.
@missingE Thanks for Merriam Webster’s Dictionary. Also, I have found useful to look up words in their Learners Dictionary and Dictionary for kids, especially when it’s hard for me to understand from the collegiate dictionary. I will check urban dictionary too. Another doubt, how do I know about intensity or ranking of words (like the one you explained for awesome)? For example, I recently learned movements of horses. In order of increased intensity, it is like this: walk, trot, canter, gallop.

I thank again all of you for your invaluable advice.

Hibernate's avatar

Well reading from a dictionary only helps you getting familiar with the words and how they are written. You will remember only a few if you read form the dictionary. You need practical examples :P

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