With over a million words, learning English can be a scary challenge. But there are ways to make learning new words easier and to cut the time it takes to learn them.
One way to learn faster is to use memory techniques. If you haven’t downloaded our eBook about this topic, you can get it here (free!).
There’s another super useful (and fun) way to learn new words faster and more naturally — and I’m going to show it to you in a moment.
But first, you need to understand how English words work together. Let’s take a look:
How words work
Words are like people
When you first meet someone, it takes time to get to know them. But when you meet their friends and see how their relationship works — what makes them laugh, what they talk about — you get a better understanding of who they are.
Words are the same. It takes time to get to know a word. But when you “meet the word’s friends” and see what other words it spends time with most, you get to understand that word better.
Today we’re going to look at a great way to do that quickly and easily. If you read this post to the end you will:
- Understand the three most common “friend groups” in English
- Know how to “socialise” with English words and meet their friends with a simple online tool
Types of word groups
Verbs and their friends
As you know, some verbs have A LOT of friends. Verbs like “make,” “do,” “get,” “take” and “have” are very common, and we can use them with lots of different types of nouns.
I like to think of these verbs as popular people who love socialising.
As we looked at in a previous post, “do” is a very hard-working verb and likes to spend time with serious, hard-working nouns:
“Make” is more of a party animal and likes to do things that are more fun and less work focussed:
There are a lot of other less sociable examples:
Nouns and their friends
Like verbs, nouns can also have a “social circle.” Let’s look at some examples:
The special adverb-adjective friendship
Have you noticed that some people become such close friends that they spend most of their time together? When they’re together they feel more powerful than when they’re not.
In English, we have a similar thing — the adverb-adjective friendship. When you use these phrases, you sound a lot more like a native speaker.
They’re very easy to form (simply adverb + adjective). Here are some common ones:
The technical term for words that often spend time with each other is collocations.
How to find collocations for any word
OK. So we’ve seen some examples of words and who they spend time with — or collocations. But of course, these examples are only a very small percentage of ALL the collocations in English.
But here’s a tool you can use to immediately see how English words are used in the real world.
It’s called a “corpus” (the plural is “corpora”). A corpus is basically a big database of real-life examples of English. You can look up any word you like and see thousands of examples of that word with its friends.
Go to corpus.byu.edu and choose one of the corpora. There are lots of different corpora on this page, but I like the “NOW Corpus.” It’s from a wide range of online news websites, so it contains both formal and informal English.
Type your word into the search field on the left. I’m going to use the word “find.”
Click on the word you wrote in the table.
Check out the results!
There are a lot of words here but remember: DON’T PANIC! You only need to look at the word that you searched for (it’s there, highlighted in green) and the words around it.
In my search for “find” I got a lot of results. Let’s look at them in detail. What do they tell us about the word? Who are the word’s friends?
“… if I could find a friend…”
“To find evidence of Garrett extremism…”
“…the Roberts House to find holiday inspiration…”
As we can see, we can use “find” with different nouns:
- find a friend
- find evidence of
- find inspiration
These are common words that we use with “find.”
This search also shows us phrases and grammar structures that we can use with “find”:
“They returned to find the rear passenger window broken.”
From this example, we can see this structure:
find + something (the window) + adjective (broken)
And here’s another use of “find”:
“…what part of the male body they find the most attractive? To find out, Japanese telecommunications provider…”
“To find out” is a phrasal verb. We see it more than once in this search result, so we can see it’s very common. In fact, it’s the most common phrasal verb with “find.”
So remember: Words are just like people. They like spending time with some words more than others.
If you want to understand a word well, see who it likes to spend time with!
Choose a new English word and a word you know well. Go to corpus.byu.edu and follow the instructions above. Did you learn anything new?