Stop Using Your Dictionary!

Do you look up words in a dictionary and try to memorize their definitions? Is it easy for you to actually use a word once you’ve memorized its definition?

To really understand how to use a word,  I suggest that you become a vocabulary detective. Like a detective, you need to do some research, and the best place to go to learn how to use a word is an Internet news website. A search on these sites will reveal how the words are being used today. Doing the search is easy. Go to a news site like Google News or Yahoo News and type your word in the “search news” box. If you want to find a phrase, then use quotation marks (“…”) around the entire phrase. The results page will show your search terms in bold, and you can click on the link to see the entire sentence.

For example, let’s say you read the phrase “edges up” in a book, and you can’t figure out what it means. If you do a Google News search, you will discover the following sentences using the phrase:

  • “Idaho’s jobless rate edges up, work force declines.”
  • “Nikkei edges up on techs, exporters”
  • “unemployment rate edges up to 5.6%”
  • “Kiwi edges up to $0.7070, from $0.7054 earlier”

If you look in an online dictionary, you’ll learn that “edge up” means “to push one’s way into a space.” In fact, this online dictionary says that “edge up” is rarely used as a verb. But after looking at the news articles from the Google search, you’ll see that the phrase is often used as a verb to mean “to increase by a small amount.” You’ll also notice that the phrase seems to be used to talk about money and numbers. The sentences from the news search give you a better picture of how the word is used in today’s media.

You can also refine your search and look for how the term is used in headlines, in the body of a text or by date. In addition, you can search in blogs. (Blogs are not always edited with the same standards that newspapers are, so be aware that you might find more grammar mistakes in blogs.)

If you’d like to investigate more uses of the word, then change the grammar a little and see what happens. If you try the same search using past tense (“edged up”), you’ll see similar results. However, if you do another search but change the preposition to “on” instead of “up,” you’ll see that the phrase doesn’t exist. The results show sentences that use the words separately.

  • …around the grassy edges. On Monday,.. .

If you begin your vocabulary learning by searching for how we use words, rather than by searching for a definition, you’ll be able to quickly add the words to your active vocabulary.

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