Saturday, March 18, 2006

Ten minutes to a better vocabulary

How do we build our vocabulary? Reading a lot of books does help but most of the times when we encounter a new word while reading we feel too lazy to look it up in the dictionary. However, we are able to guess the meaning of the word, based on the context, and that vague meaning sticks on. The result: we know a word, but are not confident of using it because we are not 100% sure of the meaning. Here's one technique to fine tune your vocabulary and be cent percent sure of word meanings...

Take any word and list out words which seem like its synonyms. Then check up each of these words in the dictionary. You will be surprised by the subtle differences between the meanings of seemingly similar words. After all, if they had the SAME meaning, we would not need so many words at all :-)


Seed word: meticulous

Synonyms (or so we think): systematic, fussy, fastidious, punctilious, scrupulous, perfectionist, painstaking, thorough, accurate

Check out these meanings from Merriam-Webster Online (
  • meticulous: marked by extreme or excessive care in the consideration or treatment of details
  • systematic: methodical in procedure or plan; marked by thoroughness and regularity
  • fussy: requiring or giving close attention to details; revealing a sometimes extreme concern for niceties
  • fastidious: having high and often capricious standards; difficult to please; showing or demanding excessive delicacy or care; reflecting a meticulous, sensitive, or demanding attitude
  • punctilious: marked by or concerned about precise accordance with the details of codes or conventions
  • scrupulous: punctiliously exact
  • perfectionist: a disposition to regard anything short of perfection as unacceptable
  • painstaking: expending, showing, or involving diligent care and effort
  • thorough: marked by full detail; careful about detail
  • accurate: free from error especially as the result of care

Although the words seem very similar and in most cases we can use one instead of the other, on careful observation we can see the subtle differences in meaning and intensity. For example, words like 'fastidious', 'fussy' and 'perfectionist' are so strong that sometimes, they may even border on the negative!

When we pick words like this and systematically analyse them, it improves our vocabulary phenomenally. This exercise just took me 10 minutes. I am sure we can afford to spend that much time every day to develop one of the most essential skills required by writers.

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