One of the best ways to learn new words is to keep a good dictionary close to your elbow and use it.  Sometimes, you can get some idea of the meaning of a new word from its context – how it is used in your reading material.  Use context when you can, but be aware that it has its limitations.  According to Lee Deighton of Columbia University, using context has the following three limitations:

  • Context provides only the meaning that fits that particular situation.

  • You often end up with a synonym, which is not quite the same as a definition.

  • When you have to infer the meaning of a word, you can be slightly (or greatly) in error.

Your safest bet is to avoid all the guesswork and go straight to your dictionary.  As you study, consult your dictionary whenever you come to a word that you don't know precisely.  Find the exact meaning you need; then go back to your textbook and reread the paragraph, with the meaning substituted for the word.  If you become interested in a particular word, write it on a 3 x 5 card.  Later, go back to the dictionary and investigate it.  Write its meanings on the card, and keep the card and other like cards to look through and study occasionally.  But don't break into your studying for a long session with the dictionary; save that for later.

Follow the example of thousands of successful people.  Get yourself a pocket dictionary, and always carry it with you.  Its definitions will be terse, consisting mainly of synonyms, but its value lies in its ability to spark a lifelong interest in words as well as increase your vocabulary.  Of course, a pocket dictionary is no substitute for a larger, desk-size dictionary; but as a portable learning tool, the pocket dictionary is worth at least its weight in gold.

For your study periods, buy and use the best abridged dictionary that you can afford, but be aware that no word is ever fully defined even by a good abridged dictionary.  The dictionary meaning is only an operational meaning that will solve your immediate problem.  Words have multiple shades of meaning that add richness to our language.  The various shades will become apparent to you as you keep reading, listening, and trying to use words in a variety of contexts.

For intensive word study, however, there is no substitute for an unabridged dictionary.  Locate the unabridged dictionaries in your library or resource center and use them to supplement your own abridged desk dictionary. An unabridged dictionary gives more definitions, more about the derivations of words, and more on usage.  (Pauk, pp. 308 - 309)