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Learning vocabulary: Dealing with meaning

There are two aspects of meaning to consider, when learning vocabulary:

1. The type of meaning

The various types of meaning that need to be learned are:

2. The representation of meaning.

There are many ways in which the meaning of words can be expressed:


1. The type of meaning

Propositional meaning

This is the basic meaning of a word given in simple dictionaries.

For example, "good" is a general description for things that are of high quality, positive, approved of or generally appreciated. However, when we use "good" to describe things, it takes on additional meanings.


Part of the meaning of a word is its register. Which types of language is the word used in: letters or reports, spoken or written, biology or business etc?

For example:

"put up with" is an informal word, typically used in speech; tolerate is the more formal equivalent, common in academic writing.

"integer" and "magnitude" are typically used in mathematics, whereas "debtor" and "creditworthiness" are used in business, and "biospheric" and "emissions" are related to environmental science.

Metaphorical meaning

Metaphorical meaning is the meaning that a word has when it is first used in a new situation. When new ideas or products are made, very often old words are used for these new ideas and products. In some cases the old meaning disappears or becomes less well known. Computer science and business use many metaphors.

For example

A "head" is part of the body of an animal, but it is now commonly used for the highest person in a company or organisation.

A "niche" is a hollow area in a wall for a statue or something, but it is used in business to mean a specialised market.

"Green" is a colour but now it is connected with protecting the environment.

A "keyboard" is a musical instrument, but it is used for a device for computer input.

"Haemorrhage" means severe bleeding, but...

Connotational meaning

Apart from the basic, dictionary, meaning, words have other meanings. For example, a word may be a positive or negative word? These are different in different languages so it is important to know the association that a word may have in English.

For example:

a social science student, writing about people without permanent homes needs to remember that "vagrant" has negative connotations, compared with "homeless".

a HRM student, writing about discrimination legislation will need to be careful about using words such as "handicapped", "black", "blind", etc.

Compare, for example, "frugal", "prudent", "careful", "thrifty" & "stingy"; "frank", "honest", "candid" & "blunt"; "thin", "slender", "slim", "scrawny", "slight". "lean" & "wiry".


2. The representation of meaning


The easiest way to show the meaning of a word is to translate it into your own language. This is fine for some words and it will help you towards the meaning of other words, but many words are difficult to translate between languages. Even if you do translate the word, you still have a long way to go before you can really understand and use the word.

For example:


base rate/prime rate: taux de base, taux préférenentiel



broker: mediatore, intermediario



Some words can be easily defined in English. This is usually what monolingual dictionaries do.

For example:


explosion: loud noise caused by a sudden and violent bursting

oil: liquid which does not mix with water, obtained from plants or animals or found in rock underground



Words are often defined by their relationship with other words - for example, it is impossible to understand the meaning of "hot" without some understanding of the meaning of "cold" - so this is often a useful way to record meaning.

The following relationships may be useful in explaining word meanings:

Similar meanings (synonyms): "increase = rise", "rich = wealthy"

Opposites (antonyms): "increase decrease"; "pass fail"

General/specific (hyponyms): "fruit/apple"; "vehicle/car"

Part/whole (meronyms): "wheels/bicycle"; "engine/car"

Collocations (typical occurrences): "a steady increase", "niche marketing", "competitive market" or "unskilled labour"

Webs of meaning: "car" is associated with "petrol, driver wheel & oil"



opposite - decrease, fall, decline

similar to: rise, go up, improve

collocates with: steady, slight, great






Diagrams and pictures can be very useful to help you remember the meanings of words.

For example:

Pictures can clearly show meanings:


Petrol Engine



Geographical features

Tree diagrams can help you remember relationships between words:





tree diagram





From: Crystal (1995, p. 198)


In context

Giving an example of the word used in context is often enough to make the meaning clear.

For example, you can probably remember the meaning of "reviewer" from the following text:


An anonymous reviewer of the book in the Times Literary Supplement declared: 'If a student of British politics were to demand some precepts to guide his researches, the compiler would have little difficulty about the first and most significant maxim in the creed.'

And the meaning of "factor" is quite clear from:


An important factor in his decision to take the job was the large salary offered.