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Which language has the largest vocabulary? English! English has over one million dictionary entries.
Does this mean that, as an English learner, you need to learn over a million words? No, of course not! The average working vocabulary of an English speaker is much smaller than that - 20,000 words.
But it does mean that there are many opportunities to improve your vocabulary, simply because there are so many words out there.
It seems that there are multiple words for everything. In place of good, we can say nice, lovely, pleasing and so on. If we include words for ‘very good’, we get excellent, splendid, marvellous, fantastic, awesome, wonderful and many more.
On top of that, words have multiple meanings. The word good can mean ‘benefit’ (for the good of mankind). As a noun, we use the word goods to refer to products (we’ll ship the goods tomorrow).
All this sounds very challenging to English learners, but I want you to see it not as a challenge, but an opportunity. If English is a tool, it is a tool that you can make very strong and powerful by improving your vocabulary.
Synonyms are great for vocabulary expansion because… you don’t even need to learn a new meaning!
Where can I find synonyms?
There are a few ways to hunt synonyms.
If you use Microsoft Word, you can simply right click on a word and choose Synonyms from the menu that pops up.
If you install a tool such as Grammarly on your PC, you will find a similar feature.
Or, of course, you could simply Google “synonyms for good”.
Do you know what a thesaurus is? It’s like a dictionary, but instead of giving definitions for words, it gives lists of synonyms. You can find one online here. You could even buy one at the bookshop if you want to go “old school”.
The dangers of synonyms
So far, so good. We have ways to find synonyms and we can use them to replace simple words such as “good” to enhance our vocabulary.
But wait a minute…this could lead to trouble!
Let’s say that you write this sentence in Microsoft Word:
My grandmother’s soup is really good!
You want to find a better word for good, so you right click on the word good and replace it with the word virtuous from the list of synonyms.
Well… that’s not correct. Virtuous means “good”, but more specifically it means “behaving in an ethical way”.
Does your grandmother’s soup behave in an ethical way? No! We want to say that it’s delicious (tasty, yummy, scrumptious), not virtuous!
No matter which method you use to find synonyms, you need to make sure that the meaning matches.
Well, this sounds like a lot of trouble, doesn’t it? The good news is that it is this “trouble” (hassle, bother, nuisance, hassle) that will really help you to learn.
When you spend time exploring words and how they are used, you are much more likely to remember them. And you are much more likely to use them correctly.
Creating smart synonym practice activities
Because we really want to explore and analyse words, we need to set aside some time specifically for this kind of practice, around half an hour.
Hopefully, as a smart learner, you set aside time to practise all the various skills - reading, writing, grammar, speaking, listening, vocabulary. This activity will take place during your vocabulary practice.
Synonym Activity 1
First we need to find a relatively simple text that we can analyse. You can use an essay that you have previously written - it will work great for this activity.
Otherwise, I recommend using one of the transcripts from the English Learning for Curious Minds podcast. The English used in this podcast has been simplified slightly for English learners, which makes it perfect. It also means that this becomes a vocabulary AND listening activity.
Next, simply go through the script looking for simple words, such as good, bad, tall, person, place, push, eat and so on. These are the most likely words to have synonyms. Longer, more technical words, like globalisation, are less likely to have synonyms.
Use one of the methods mentioned, such as an online thesaurus or Microsoft Word, to hunt synonyms for these common words. Look for interesting ones!
Remember, a synonym may be a phrase rather than a single word. For example, look into is a synonym for investigate.
The final step is to explore each word and ensure that you are using it correctly. We want to say that our grandmother’s soup is scrumptious, not virtuous!
To do this, simply look up each word using an online dictionary, as a first step.
Next, look up examples of each word used in a sentence. This will give you a really good feel as to whether you are on the right track. A tool that you can use for this is the sentence function of yourdictionary.com. It gives hundreds of examples for each word!
Synonym Activity 2
Activity 2 is simpler. Here, you take any text which you find interesting (try the recommendations in our 10 Best Books for English Learners article), and hunt out any synonyms that you seldom or never use. Stories are best for this, because they are full of expressive and descriptive language.
For example, you may read this sentence in a story:
Jerry shoved his sister into the pool, then grinned as she emerged soaking wet and furious with him.
There are two specific actions here: shove (synonym of push) and grin (synonym of smile). Emerge is a synonym of the more common phrase, come out. Soaking wet is a synonym of ‘very wet’.
Make a list of any of these synonyms which either you didn’t know or you never use. Remember to explore each word for the exact meaning. For example, shove is a synonym of push, but the exact meaning is “push hard”.
What if you make mistakes with your new synonyms?
As your English improves and you come to advanced level vocabulary, words can be harder to get right. We’ve seen how it is easy to make mistakes with synonyms and how we might end up with words that are slightly different to what we want.
However, making mistakes is all part of learning a language, even - or especially - at an advanced level.
The benefits you gain from expanding your vocabulary outweigh any mistakes that you make. And if you’re not 100% sure of a meaning, listen carefully to how others use it. Eventually (in due course, after a while, in the end), you will get it correct
Take synonyms to the next level
I have one more tip for you to take your practice of synonyms to the next level.
Let’s say you learn two synonyms for ‘very large’ - enormous and monumental. Which one is more common? Which one is more likely to be used in everyday speech?
We can use a frequency tool to find out. For example, the chart below shows that enormous is a much more common word than monumental.
This chart comes from Google’s Ngram Viewer and is based on how often these words are found in books. Tools like Ludwig also offer similar features. And they can be very addictive to play with!
To gain a deeper understanding of English, you need to be curious (inquisitive/analytical/questioning). As a curious learner, a final step in the study of synonyms is to look at their opposites – antonyms.
Just as big and large are synonyms, big and small are antonyms, opposites.
For example, you might learn the word inhale (to breathe in or take in air or smoke into your mouth). The curious learner would guess there must be an opposite word, meaning to breathe out.
A quick check of the thesaurus confirms that the antonym of inhale is exhale. (Yes, a thesaurus provides antonyms as well as synonyms.) Now. you’ve learned two words for the price of one!
If you see a word beginning with -in, -un, -im or a similar prefix, it probably means that there is an opposite word. For example, the word incredible is quite common, but do you know the word credible (believable)?
Sometimes, an antonym can help to better understand the meaning of a word. For example, when I look up the meaning of upbeat, I find “full of hope, happiness and good feelings”. It’s a good explanation, but it doesn’t quite give the full picture.
Looking up the antonyms for upbeat, I find depressed, sad, and pessimistic. This helps to get a fuller understanding of the word - it means optimistic, the opposite of pessimistic.
Make this part of your English learning routine
A serious learner needs a set routine to steadily improve. My advice is to make synonyms a regular part of your vocabulary practice routine.