Learn New Words, Improve Your Writing

I focus a lot on vocabulary around here. Words are a writer’s stock in trade and learning new words is a great way to improve your writing. The natural way for a writer to learn new words, of course, is to read a lot. “Your writing can only be as good as the best writing you’ve read,” says Paul Harding.

Research shows, however, that we learn words best when we are exposed to them in multiple ways, and that’s what relaunched site Vocabulary.com aims to do. (Full disclosure: I wrote some of the explanations and the “Choose Your Words” features for the site and some of my articles are republished there.) You might have visited Vocabulary.com after reading one of my Vocab Builders: “Vocabulary.com” or “Virginia’s Room,” but the site is totally different today.

Says Ben Zimmer, executive producer of Vocabulary.com, “We’ve started from scratch to create a system that models each person’s vocabulary and abilities so that we can serve up a personalized learning experience that is both engaging and effective.”

One part of that system is The Challenge, which presents you with a series of vocabulary questions. The type of question varies, and there are currently 40,000 questions for you to attempt. Each correct answer earns you points. Points earn you bragging rights in the form of achievements. The Challenge keeps track not only of your score, but also how well you are learning words. Click on the My Progress tab, and you will see how many words you’ve gotten correct and how many you’ve mastered. (You’ll have to play awhile to get mastered data.)

Not sure of the correct answer? Get a hint. If you answer correctly from the hint, you still get points. Get a word wrong, and the game will give you a brief description of the word. At the end of the round, you’ll get another opportunity to answer correctly—no points, though. The question will also come up again in future rounds.

The Challenge is fed from the 150,000 words in The World’s Fastest Dictionary. Each word has definitions and pronunciations. Many words also have a plain English, sometimes sassy explanation and real-world usage examples. From a word’s definition page, you can add the word to one of your word lists, include it in your Challenge, like it on Facebook, and look up its synonyms on Visual Thesaurus. Not all functions are available yet for all words.

You can also search the dictionary with an advanced search feature to find a specific word. Perhaps the word is on the tip of your tongue. You can search for it by parts of speech, number of syllables, or a partial definition. Maybe you need a rhyming word; you can search by rhyme as well.

As you build your search, watch the search box above and make notes of the commands used to find your word (a list of search commands can’t yet be found on the site). For example, if you’re looking for a word that rhymes with jelly, enter partsof:body + rhyme:jelly into the search box. Vocabulary.com will return belly. How’s that for helpful?

After you’ve study words for a while, click on the Magazine tab. Here you’ll find a collection of articles by Vocabulary.com executive producer Ben Zimmer, other linguists, vocabulary teachers, and more language experts, including yours truly. “Choose Your Words” will help you decided between frequently confused words, such as turbid and turgid. “Word Routes” will tell you where our words have been, such as app). The other departments are just as loaded with good reading.

Words are just one tool in a writer’s toolbox, but they are an important one. Have fun while improving your writing by checking out Vocabuarly.com. You can follow Vocabulary.com on Twitter or Facebook).

What language-related sites do you use for education and entertainment? Share them in the comments section below.

About Erin Brenner

With a BA and an MA in English, Erin has been an editing professional for 15 years, working on a variety of media, especially online. Her niche is business/marketing and online. In addition, she has experience teaching editing to non-editors and coaching writers. In 2008, Erin was bitten by the social media bug...hard. Follow her on Twitter, @ebrenner, and get a daily vocabulary word, a link to the article of the day, and much more. You can also find her on Facebook and LinkedIn.
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