Should it be easy for a person to define the meaning of words?
I'm trying to increase my vocabulary and the way I'm doing this is through the use of a dictionary. When I read the word I try to think of all the instances I've seen it and integrate it into various sentences and then I try to define it, but my definitions always fall miles short of the ones in the dictionary - there are details missing or I will have expressed it in a simple way. Do I have an unrealistic expectation of myself or should some form of definition come to mind straight away?
- Topi MLv 57 years agoFavorite Answer
My impression is that most native speakers have tacit knowledge of how words are used, how they behave and what you can and cannot do with them.
You can be a very good writer and speaker and able to use a given word well but unable to give a clear and all-encompassing definition for it.
This is mostly because it's not even true that a word has a meaning in and of itself. Words appear in conjunction with other words and enter into different kinds of constructions, and these "types of constructions" that a given words appears in are what may be said to have a somewhat stable meaning.
For example, if you try to give a full definition for the word "romantic", it's surprisingly difficult. It's used in so many ways and it's confusing to explain or give a complete picture of all of that. But if you think about what "romantic" means when it's applied to people and what it means in constructions like "X is so romantic" and "X isn't very romantic", then it might mean something like "Someone who is romantic or does romantic things says and does things that make their girlfriend, boyfriend, husband or wife feel special and loved."
The above is the kind of tacit knowledge that native speakers do in fact have about what words mean. But it's a specialized skill and a difficult thing to be able to separate a certain kind of use of a word and articulate such a clear explanation of what the word means when it appears in that construction.
You shouldn't worry if you find definitions hard to come up with or that your definitions tend to miss something that a dictionary lists. Not all dictionaries have informative definitions anyway. They mostly assume you already know what the word means, and the definition typically just offers a set of good and close synonyms.
I agree with the previous answer in that what matters is reading and absorbing the language in a broad sense. This gives you that kind of tacit knowledge and understanding of how words behave and how they are used. Sometimes you may find that the ideas you have aren't very precise or that they're even a bit mistaken. For this reason it's also good to use dictionaries from time to time, to sometimes look into the backgrounds of words and expressions, and to see what good corpus-based dictionaries have to say about them.
You should bear in mind that the way a good dictionary definition is constructed is that the lexicographer gathers a vert large number of usage examples from a corpus or even several corpora. Then they organise them according to types of construction the word enters into, and that often gives a sense of how many meanings and definitions a words should have. Each type of construction often (but not always) merits its own sense with a separate definition.
The point is that good definitions are not something lexicographers produce just based on their own understanding or their intuitions about the word. They do use their intuition when making decisions about how to group the word's uses into different senses and how to define each of them, but the background for all this is always the corpus.
If you enjoy trying to define words, it may be a good exercise. But I would not say that you need to be a lexicographer or particularly good at defining words to be good at writing or using the language in practice.
- Snarky91Lv 57 years ago
Broad exposure to writing helps. Read a news article (NY Times) everyday and look up words you do not understand. Always look up words you've heard several times yet do not understand. Context informs connotation which functions to give words meaning in practice.