Vocabulary – how to use it correctly

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Vocabulary – definition

vocabulary Vocabulary is a general term to describe the particular selection or type of words chosen in speech or writing.

redbtn It refers to individual items of content such as words.

redbtn Stylistic analysis picks out specific vocabulary items and analyses them as distinct from the grammar of the statement.


redbtn Here is a statement [from the world of computer technology] with certain vocabulary items selected for analysis.

“JavaScript is not a standalone programming language, and JavaScript programs cannot run outside the context of a Web browser.”

JavaScript technical jargon and the proper name for a programming language
standalone a recent coinage used as an adjective describing the nature of the programming language
program an American borrowing, useful as it distinguishes it from the English ‘programme’ which is now kept for reference to theatrical or TV content lists
Web more technical jargon, and the [abbreviated] proper name of the World Wide Web
browser the name of software for exploring the Web [a very recent coinage]


redbtn Every individual has a collection of vocabulary items stored up in memory for use in speech and writing.

redbtn This collection can be referred to as a person’s lexicon.

redbtn The lexicon of any group is the sum-total of its word-stock.

redbtn This public lexicon is recorded in dictionaries — which have to be kept up to date as word meanings change and new items of vocabulary are created.

redbtn Vocabulary (or ‘lexis’) is usefully distinguished from grammar in textual analysis. The grammar of any utterance is the underlying structure. The vocabulary or the lexical level is the immediate content or subject-matter of a statement.

redbtn The passage which follows contains a normal mixture of grammatical items and vocabulary items.

Bananas are cheap and plentiful and can be used in many interesting ways, either as desserts or in main meals.

redbtn With the grammatical items removed, the sentence still makes some sense.

Bananas cheap plentiful used many interesting ways either desserts main meals.

redbtn Without the lexical items however, the grammar words mean nothing as a sequence.

are and can be in as or in

redbtn As part of the language acquisition process, children build up a vocabulary which is like a personal archive of words or utterances. These may be called on as part of the natural act of speaking.

redbtn Much research has been carried out to assess the volume of a child’s vocabulary at a young age. It has been impossible to gain accurate results in this field because a child utters only a fraction of its total vocabulary.

redbtn Saussure applied the terms langue and parole to this phenomenon. Langue referred to the total individual vocabulary comprising the words learnt and understood (but not necessarily uttered). Parole referred to the vocabulary actually spoken.

redbtn There is an added complexity surrounding this topic. That is the definition of ‘knowing’ a vocabulary item. A person could utter a word or a phrase without knowing its meaning. Moreover, the quality of understanding is not always easy to assess, especially in children.

redbtn Vocabulary is one level of stylistic analysis, along with graphology, phonology, grammar and semantics.

redbtn In anylysing the vocabulary of a text or a speech, patterns of usage would be the subject of comment. For instance, the frequent occurrence of technical terms in car repair manual, or of emotive terms in a tabloid newspaper article.

redbtn Aberrant usage would also be of interest. In advertising for instance, words are sometimes spelt deviantly as in Beanz meanz Heinz. Coinages are also used, as is rhyme and onomatopoeia. All these features become issues of vocabulary in stylistics.

Self-assessment quiz follows …

© Roy Johnson 2004

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