top of page

Vocabulary Meaning, Form, and Use - How to Really Level up your English

Beware of advice to 'level up your English with advanced vocabulary'. I often see this kind of content on social media, and I can understand why it is attractive, but here's why you should be careful.

Would you like to listen to this article as your read? Download the sound file here.
Vocabulary Meaning, Form, and Use - Get Set Go English Blog
Download ZIP • 10.01MB

Simply replacing basic words with advanced words can make your English sound unnatural if they not used correctly. What's more, it can lead to misunderstandings. It's true that 'it's not my cup of tea' is another way of saying 'I don't like it', but if you use this expression with the wrong person, it's likely to be more confusing.

It's important to understand meaning, form, and use of lexis in order to use it naturally and communicate well. That's not so say that experimenting with language should be avoided, of course... experimenting is a good thing!

Explore the meaning, form, and use of new lexis to really learn English.
Vocabulary meaning, form, and use

So, what is meaning, form, and use? Let's start with meaning.

Vocabulary Meaning

When we come across a new word, we will first try to understand it by way of basic meaning. We are likely to associate it with something we already know so, for example, 'chair' is this thing I am sitting on. For those learning English as a foreign language, the meaning might come by way of a translation - 'chair' is 'silla' in Spanish. This is ok for simple language and it can certainly work for concrete nouns. We might also consider synonyms (similar words) and antonyms (opposites). We might consider the topic to which it belongs - for example, rain and snow belong to the topic of weather. We will probably note the word type too (noun, verb etc.) and perhaps even basic connotations such as whether is has a positive, negative, or neutral meaning. This is all great!

Vocabulary Form

When we first encounter new lexis, we will also notice its form. This includes how it is pronounced and how it looks on the page - spelling, affixes etc.

Vocabulary Use

To understand use, we need to explore deeper. Use is 'how' the language is really used in 'real' English. We need to consider how appropriate it is for the situation and what other language it is commonly used with.

Here are some ideas:


  • Who is speaking? Teachers, doctors, sales people, and parents, all have different language which is characteristic of their role.

  • What are they speaking about? Topics such as law, medicine, religion, or advertising have language which is typical for the field.

Relationships and people

  • Who is speaking to whom and what is their relationship? Parents, bosses, teachers use different language to their respective children, subordinates, and students.

  • Is there an upper class / non-upper class distinction? For example, 'lavatory' and 'toilet'.

Time and place

  • Is it old-fashioned language or modern language?

  • Where is the language used? Is it American English, British English, or English as a Foreign language?

  • How is the language being transmitted? Email, phone, text, or face-to-face. Different modes of communications use different language.

Formal / Informal

  • Is it an announcement or a speech? Is it an appointment with the dentist? Perhaps a chat with friends? Or with your partner? All of these situations have different levels of formality.

Think about how appropriate the language is for the individual situation.

We should also consider collocations. Collocations are words that simply go together well. Words that are frequently used together become habit and through habit they are used together. They sound right together and they sound natural. For example, we say 'fast food' but not 'quick food' and we say 'take a photo' not 'make a photo'. To an English ear 'fish and chips' sounds right but 'chips and fish' sounds wrong.

Improved understanding of language use is what can really take your English to the next level. So, here are my top tips:

Top tips for learning English vocabulary

  1. Notice language in context.

  2. Think about who, when, where, and how it is being used.

  3. Capture vocabulary in 'chunks' rather than individual words.

  4. Record new vocabulary with plenty of examples.

  5. Notice common collocations and record these too.


Fancy reading more about vocabulary? Read 'Tip tips for learning new vocabulary' here...


bottom of page