Tuesday, 28 April 2009

The importance of vocabulary

A common misconception about what is being an advanced student is that "advanced English is complex grammar". Students want to practice unimaginable constructions such as if you had seen how dirty he was you would have known that he would have had to have been under the car (a real example). The fact is, there are certain rules which govern things like word order and structure in English, and those rules are finite. Once you have mastered them, there´s not much more to learn, grammaticaly speaking. In fact, all of English grammar could be described in the length of a 250 page book. Not so for the other, usually neglected, area of English - lexis (vocabulary). Whereas grammar rules are limited to about a hundred or so, fluent speakers of English have thousands of lexical items to draw from as they speak. On balance, it is vocabulary that will contribute most to a learner´s level of fluency. What do you think about it?

For example, did you happen to know that....?

assassinate - Unlike Portuguese, only presidents and other very important people get
"assassinated." Otherwise, it´s murder, not "assassination."
Example: Four presidents have been assassinated in US history.

propaganda - It isn´t "advertising" as it means in Portuguese, but it is public relations material sent out by political parties or a government - and has a negative connotation.
Example: Some old cartoons have a lot of propaganda in favor of the war.

notorious - Notorious mostly means "noteworthy" or "famous" in Portuguese, but in English it only means "famous for something bad."
Example: He´s notorious for being late.


vanity - Vaidoso in Portuguese is a good thing, meaning someone who looks after him or
herself. However, in English it means someone who thinks too highly of himself. The same goes for the word vanity.
Example: Her boyfriend is so vain. Every time he passes a window he looks at his own reflection.

Adapted from "Como dizer tudo em inglês" Avançado by Ron Martinez, 2006


  1. I sure learned something new!


  2. Dear Danuza, this is something that I have always been interested in! How would you say, for instance, 'custa os olhos da cara' in English?! I suppose it's not 'the eyes of the face', as my boyfriend suggested?! Best, d.

  3. Daniela, Well in English one has to say it cost an arm and a leg. It´s also a part of the body but surely not quite the same

  4. As a native speaker, I have always used the expression "it cost an arm and a leg." Although this is not this a direct translation, personally I feel that arms, legs, and eyes are all equally vital body parts. However, I am not familiar with the Portuguese expression so I may be wrong in this assumption.

  5. @Jacqueline:

    Hi there!
    You're perfectly correct in your assumption.
    How does "it cost a bundle" sound to you?

    Miss you,
    Chris Dupont

  6. Chris:
    I have never used "it cost a bundle." However, if I heard that I would assume the same--something cost a lot of money. As an American, I haven't heard that used as often as "it cost an arm and a leg." This blog is really helpful even as a native speaker--especially when there is connection to Portuguese. I look forward to continue following it. =)

    Looking forward to coming back to a class this summer!

    Hugs and kisses

  7. @Jacqueline
    Thank you for your valuable input.
    As a native speaker of English do you often "catch" us non-native speakers using vocab that sounds far too formal? Can provide any examples?

    See you in the summer.

    Chris Dupont

  8. That's something I would like to explore a bit more.

  9. This comment has been removed by the author.

  10. Very interesting, for sure.

  11. Pedro and Daniel,

    Were the vocabulary items new to you? I am glad you are enjoying it.

  12. Chris:

    As far as vocabulary is concerned, yes, there are certainly words that are more formal. Off hand I can't remember any ones in particular, but one phrase that I have found formal is "isn't it" to provide affirmation after a statement. Personally, I have never used this phrase (although correct). I think the most important thing here to note is to be aware of the audience you are speaking to. If you are speaking in a formal setting or perhaps to elders, it is wise to speak formally (I do). However, if you are among your peers or people that you are extremely comfortable with, there is not a great need for formality. In my opinion, regardless of the situation, I believe that it is extremely important for non-native speakers to learn formal vocabulary as it shows a higher level of education, but at the same time know colloquialisms or less formal collocations. As a non-native Portuguese speaker, I feel that colloquialisms or less formal collocations are harder for me to learn. Yet, watching Brazilian TV and having native friends have definitely helped.

    I hope I answered your question. I apologize for the novel length response. If I remember of any formal vocabulary I will let you know.


  13. Some are new for me too like "assassinate"

  14. @Jacqueline
    Hi Jackie,
    English is an amazing language, isn't it? Ha! Ha! Ha! Just kidding...
    Actually, I was never taught it sounded formal. What do you use instead of it, then?
    By the way, I loved your novel length response.


  15. Hi Chris,
    Haha, yes, English is an amazing language, even though personally I prefer Portuguese or Spanish..rs
    Instead of "isn't it?" I personally use "right?" or even more informal "yeah?" to affirm a statement.


  16. @ Jacqueline

    Hi Jackie,
    In American TV series I've noticed they use "right" all the time.
    I agree with you: Portuguese and Spanish are beautiful languages too.
    Who taught you to speak Portuguese? Do you find it harder than Spanish?


  17. It's being really good to follow the blog and also to learn in every new post.