The 3 aspects of new vocabulary: definition, connotation and collocations

Building your vocabulary is one of the main tasks of learning a new language. Grammar and pronunciation are, of course, important, too, but without the words themselves, you have no language! So every language learner works hard to acquire new words. The question then is,

How do I use them correctly?

Most people look up new words in the dictionary or translator to find the basic definition. This is the first thing you need to know. But the definition is only one aspect of a word. To use the word correctly, you need to know two other things:

  1. connotation; and
  2. collocations.

Connotation

A connotation is the feeling a word provokes when someone hears it. Usually this involves neutral, positive or negative. Two or more words may mean essentially the same thing, but they create different emotions in the listener.

Look, for example, at the words thin, slender, and skinny. They all refer to someone who has little fat on their body, but one is neutral—no particular connotation; one carries a positive connotation; and one is negative.

neutral positive negative
thin slender skinny

 

Consider these conversations:

A. He's very thin.
B. Yes, he is.

A. He's very slender.
B. Yes, isn't he gorgeous?

A. He's very skinny.
B. Yes, he needs to eat more!

Can you see how thin is neutral, while slender is positive and skinny is negative? If you don't know the connotation of these words, you might unintentionally offend someone, or confuse your listener ("Are they saying that's good or bad?").

The best way to find out the connotations of words is to read or hear them many times in context. A good resource is YourDictionary.com. Under the tab "Sentences", you can look up any word or phrase, and it will find sentences that use it.

The best resource, of course, is your teacher at The English Farm!

Collocations

In English, many words often go together, like "return on" and "investment". It sounds natural to an English speaker to say,

"We got a good return on that investment."

It would sound unnatural, however, to say,

"We made a good profit from that investment."

They mean the same thing, but one just sounds better to an English speaker. This is called a collocation.

Your listener will probably understand you if you use the wrong collocation, but they'll have to make an effort to "translate" the collocation to the natural one.

You: "We made a good profit from that investment."
Listener: (thinking—Oh, you mean, "a good return on". Now I get it.)

This is an important part of communicating clearly—you don't want your listener to have to work to understand you.

For more on collocations, check out this blog post: "Discover collocations for clear, natural English".

We also offer a course on collocations, in two levels: Collocations in Use (Intermediate or Advanced).

Summary

When you learn a new word, be sure to do these three things:

  1. Find the basic definition (plus part of speech, word forms, etc.) in a dictionary.
  2. Learn the connotation—neutral, positive or negative?
  3. Add collocations to use it naturally.

Once you've done all three, you'll know the vocabulary inside and out, be able to use it naturally, and never forget it!

inside and out [idiom]—thoroughly.