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Hi there,
I decided to put this here in the linguistic section because it seems like a strange and very complicated subject to discuss.
I am going to improve my vocabulary in a systematic way (finally!), using a technique I don't feel like discussing right now. The goal is moving from a basic vocabulary (believe, sadness, smart) to a more advanced one (elicit, mourning, gullible... and assorted phrasal verbs, sayings, and idioms).
When I come across a new word, the only thing I can do is look it up in a dictionary. Two dictionaries, to be precise (Longman + M-Webster), and sometimes even three. What I have noticed is that as soon as you are interested in more advanced vocabulary, learner's dictionaries become more and more limiting and imprecise, and dictionaries for native speakers like Merriam Webster become indispensable. In any case, it seems I am now faced with the daunting task of understanding something along the lines of...
  • What's the difference between sly, cunning, wily, slick, guileful, etc.?
  • What's the difference between moan and groan?
  • What's the difference between gleam, glint, glisten, glitter, glimmer and shimmer?
  • What is the exact meaning of facetious and what does it imply?
And so on, those were just a few examples.
Now, one solution might be: open a thread and ask. Hmm, how would you like a hundred threads of mine per month, often on pretty trivial differences? Emotion: stick out tongue Hehe. That would bring up a problem, which I am actually interested in: do you think all native speakers feel the same difference between a certain set of synonyms? Do you think all of them actually know the real meaning of certain words?
The next solution, the only feasible thing to do, seems to look up each word in a couple of dictionaries and try to understand the general meaning, always linking the meaning with a clear example. Easy? Not really, especially when two definitions you got from two different dictionaries don't seem correspond completely. One definition might be too broad, the other too specific and only limited to one case. Let's give a couple of examples:

Grimace
Longman: (verb) to twist your face in an ugly way because you do not like something, because you are feeling pain, or because you are trying to be funny - (noun) an expression you make by twisting your face because you do not like something or because you are feeling pain
Webster: (noun) a facial expression usually of disgust, disapproval, or pain - (verb) no definition, but it's listed, so the meaning is related.

Comment: From Longman, I get it has a pretty general meaning, exactly like the Italian word "smorfia". On the other hand, Webster does not mention positive qualities, even though it says it's "usually" related to disgust, disapproval, or pain. Making ugly faces just for fun might be included, but it makes it sound like it's a generalization and not really the main meaning.

Groan (verb, person uttering a sound)

Longman: to make a long deep sound because you are in pain, upset, or disappointed, or because something is very enjoyable
Webste
r: to utter a deep moan indicative of pain, grief, or annoyance
Comment: Longman includes groaning because of pleasure, but Webster does not mention anyhting positive or enjoyable, not even under "moan". Both of them don't seem to make any difference whatsoever between "groan" and "moan", although Longman explicitely mentions "sexual pleasure" under "moan" instead of generally referring to an enjoyable activity.

Just some examples. In most cases it is possible to get the general meaning and "feel" some implications and differences there might be, but other times it's even difficult to be sure of the main meaning. Up to now, I have always thought of "moan" as the more general term, and "groan" as the one more related to bad feelings and suffering, but when you look up those words you can't help but say "What the hell?"

Sorry if this was too long, but if you feel like replying, just comment on whatever you want. I just need to hear some advice that will help me understand more about these problems, so that I will be able to make the best decisions and improve my English as much as it's theoretically possible. Thanks. Emotion: smile
Comments  
I don't know if this will help you or not, but you have probably already noticed that in the online M-W, there are usage notes about the subtle differences between words.

http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/sly

synonyms sly , cunning , crafty , wily , tricky , foxy , artful , slick mean attaining or seeking to attain one's ends by guileful or devious means. sly implies furtiveness, lack of candor, and skill in concealing one's aims and methods <a sly corporate raider>. cunning suggests the inventive use of sometimes limited intelligence in overreaching or circumventing <the cunning fox avoided the trap>. crafty implies cleverness and subtlety of method <a crafty lefthander>. wily implies skill and deception in maneuvering <the wily fugitive escaped the posse>. tricky is more likely to suggest shiftiness and unreliability than skill in deception and maneuvering <a tricky political operative>. foxy implies a shrewd and wary craftiness usually involving devious dealing <a foxy publicity man planting stories>. artful implies indirectness in dealing and often connotes sophistication or cleverness <elicited the information by artful questioning>. slick emphasizes smoothness and guile <slick operators selling time-sharing>.

There are times when I've seen non-natives on these threads go on about the key differnces in words that I've used interchangeably without a second thought, and then there are times when they ask about two words with almost identical definitions but that have different connotations so that I would rarely replace one with the other.

Anyway, I have used this online guide myself at times.

One other thing to try is online thesauruses - check the way each is defined to look for the differences. Sticking with your "sly" example:

Sly lists as synonyms arch, artful, astute, bluffing, cagey, calculating, canny, captious, conniving, covert, crafty, crooked, cunning, deceitful, deceptive, delusive, designing, dishonest, dishonorable, dissembling, double-dealing, elusive, foxy, furtive, guileful, illusory, impish, ingenious, insidious, intriguing, mean, mischievous, plotting, roguish, scheming, secret, sharp, shifty, shrewd, slick, smart, smooth, sneaking, stealthy, subtle, traitorous, treacherous, tricky, underhand, unscrupulous, wily

But sly is defined with the word "deceipt" and lower on the page as "Deceitfully clever."

The antonyms are telling to. For "sly," they are "honest, open, straight-forward, simple."

Then click on one of the synonyms, say "foxy." Note how the antonyms don't focus on deceipt, but on being clever, smart. (However, "deceitfully clever" shows up as a definition, so they're pretty close.)
I would say that you can only infer and accumulate the kind of information you want from the contexts in which those words are used.

"Grimace", for instance, to my mind, mostly occurs in contexts where the "pain", "annoyance", etc. is exaggerated, perhaps for humorous or rhetorical effect. You might grimace when I ask you whether you like Earl Grey tea: it doesn't denote real distress, but a pretence of distress, to make a point ("I don't like it at all").

In BrE, "moaning" mostly relates to "complaining", or low noises of distress. You might be alerted to the presence of the victim of a mugging by the moans from a dark alley. In literature, "moans" are sometimes sexual; or in a poetic context, they might be simply "murmuring noises".

"Groans" too can be sexual, in literature; thus it would cost Ophelia "a groaning" to take off Hamlet's edge. Elsewhere, a groan is often a noise of disbelief at something foolish or tiresome or unwelcome; you groan at a bad joke, or the fatuous suggestion of the hapless operative on the AOL helpdesk, or the cheery email from your CEO about the latest round of redundancies. Ghosts groan, as do thoughtless neighbours with painful illnesses.

On a related subject: what techniques do you use to make the vocab stick? (I like tips.)
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As Mr P suggests, the only way forward is to note the context in each case. Dictionaries cannot provide information on all the overtones and subtleties associated with a word.

As to whether all native English speakers mean the same thing by the same words, a philosophical answer is that we do not know. Leaving aside cases where people use the wrong "learned" word because they misunderstand its meaning, I am nevertheless fairly confident that all native English speakers mean the same thing when they use words like "glisten", "glitter", "glint" and "gleam" and would never use one where the other was needed. "Glisten" implies the presence of some moisture, whereas "glitter" does not. "Glint" is ephemeral, whilst "gleam" is not.
BarbI don't know if this will help you or not, but you have probably already noticed that in the online M-W, there are usage notes about the subtle differences between words.

Yep, since I use MW on a daily basis, I noticed that. They are very useful to me, because the most important synonyms are grouped together.

My opinion on learning vocabulary is... you should learn it like native speakers do, like every other part of a language you want to learn. Native speakers learn it from context, but they learn most of it when they are very young, either in books, or on TV, or in school. How? Well, it seems either your mom told you what a certain word means, or it was some friend of yours or your teacher, or you looked it up in a dictionary for some homework, or you learned its meaning from some other source, or... you just guessed from the context. Just the context might be enough if the word is very common, so you keep seeing in a lot of different sentences, otherwise it seems to me the probability of getting it wrong gets increasingly higher. One word I remember guessing wrong is "fester": I thought it had something to do with celebrating, LOL. Some contexts allow you to guess relatively easily, but try reading a novel by Stephen King, for example: you have those series of puzzling adjectives one after the other, and what can you reasonably guess? LOL.

So I think that to learn as similarly as a native as possible, you need two things:
1) Lots of "input" = lots of examples, which come from constant exposure to English (written or spoken).
2) A way to learn about the "input" you get = learn the meanings, and then remember what you've learned.

Dealing with point #1 is simple: just spend a lot of time practicing English (which I already do).
Dealing with point #2 is not that simple. To learn the meanings you can just use a couple of dictionaries (I use an advanced learner's dictionary, "Longman", and an advanced dictionary for native speakers, "Merriam Webster Collegiate"). But how do you actually "learn" new vocabulary? The technique I just started using is expected to solve this problem.

MrP, what I do is use a spaced repetition software. You create your own flash cards, but you are not going to review them at random. The software shows you the cards you feel more insecure about more frequently, and skips the ones you know better so that they will be shown less frequently. Here is a card I made, as an example:

Question:
corny (adj)

Answer (it is displayed only after you click on it):
'kȯr-nē
too silly or sentimental and repeated too often to be funny or interesting
Ex: corny jokes

You have to try to remember the answer before seeing it, and then rate your guess (from 1 to 5). The items you know less will come up more frequently. There is an algorithm that decides when you should see a certain card, and you can read about these techniques if you look up "spaced repetition".
In my opinion, it is important to include a "typical" example for each meaning, since I am convinced that native speakers know the meanings of the words because of some implicit connections they make between the words and some "typical" examples or contexts. This way, my goal is connecting each word with a typical example and a generic meaning associated with it (not too precise), just like I think native speakers do. I won't try to remember the exact definition, but just some "feelings" associated with it and well represented by a typical example.
I will use this technique because I have seen that "reading a lot" and "guessing from the context" alone just don't work. It's never worked for me.
If you pass by a store every day but you never take a close look at the window, you will never know what they sell, no matter how many times you'll pass in front of it. That's why I need to stop whenever I see an important word, and put it in a flash card, and not keep skipping it like I've done so far.
But if you don't see a certain word often enough, how long is it going to take to learn it? Native speakers know words they see pretty rarely too, and they don't forget them because they have learned them when they were young, they have always known them, and now just seeing them every once in a while is enough. If a learned doesn't see a word too often though, at least at first, they will have trouble remembering it, and will get the impression they will never be able to learn the amount of words a native speaker knows. This problem will hopefully be solved by this spaced repetition technique: the words you have trouble remembering are going to be "artificially" common, because they'll repeated more often. I don't need to be reminded of the word "dog" daily, but I might want to review a word like "laconic" very often, at least at the beginning.
And guessing from the context alone is dangerous, and often doesn't help at all. That's why I need to look up the new words in a dictionary.

That's all. If anyone feels like commenting, just write. Emotion: smile
I opened this thread because there seemed to be a problem with the ambiguity of the definitions you can find in most dictionaries, but now I think I can figure out the general meaning and one example in most cases, and that's more than enough.
along the lines of...
  • What's the difference between sly, cunning, wily, slick, guileful, etc.?
  • What's the difference between moan and groan?
  • What's the difference between gleam, glint, glisten, glitter, glimmer and shimmer?
  • What is the exact meaning of facetious and what does it imply?
And so on, those were just a few examples.
I went through this in Italian, and later again in French, and I never did solve the problem. It has to do mostly with three things, none of which is strictly speaking, "meaning": subject matter, medium, and social register. One situation may select for, say, cunning, while another selects for slick. It's like stale goes with bread, but rotten goes with eggs, not the other way around. It's like They were unwillingly won to admiration of him is literary, and They liked him in spite of themselves is conversational. It's like ... Well, you get the picture.

Sometimes I think you just have to "live there" so you'll be immersed in all those words 24 -7. Otherwise, it's a dreary slog. Hats off to you for trying, and good luck! Emotion: smile
One word I remember guessing wrong is "fester": I thought it had something to do with celebrating.
Hooooooo-eeeeeee!!! You made my day! Emotion: big smile<knee-slapping icon>

CJ
Students: Are you brave enough to let our tutors analyse your pronunciation?
CalifJimIt has to do mostly with three things, none of which is strictly speaking, "meaning": subject matter, medium, and social register. One situation may select for, say, cunning, while another selects for slick. It's like stale goes with bread, but rotten goes with eggs, not the other way around. It's like They were unwillingly won to admiration of him is literary, and They liked him in spite of themselves is conversational. It's like ... Well, you get the picture.
Yes, that's why I said I believe native speakers seem to remember and recall examples, associations, general feelings, etc, rather than the meanings of words. When you think of "rotten", you first think of a concept you have in mind and that is connected with some example, situation, etc. If you are a carpenter, you might think of wood, but if you are a cook, you might be more likely to think of eggs... and in any case, most people are not likely to think of clouds, monitors, or other words or situations that have nothing to do with the word "rotten". Then native speakers generalize, recall other associations, and finally they might come up with a meaning.

Native speakers have seen thousands of examples and contexts and so they have no problems "knowing" what a word means, which collocations are most idiomatic, and what to "expect" in a certain context. Unfortunately, learners haven't seen so many examples, and they also speak a first language that constantly tries to "interfere" with the language they are trying to learn. What I am trying to do now with that software is to artificially recreate the exposure to examples and associations that native speakers have been experiencing. I'll only use it to learn completely new words though... it is real practice that will provide me with more examples in context and that will allow me to reinforce the associations and meanings related to each word, and hopefully make it part of my active vocabulary too.
CalifJimSometimes I think you just have to "live there" so you'll be immersed in all those words 24 -7.
Well, that's what I am already doing, LOL... I try to use English 24/7. I have realized that if you want to achieve a good level of fluency (= almost as fluent as in your first language), you really have to use the language a lot... A LOT! If a singer sings "I'm waiting in my cold cell, as the bell begins to chime", and your brain is not quick enough to figure out the last word is probably "chime", making quick connections with the word "bell", you might well miss that line! But the ability required to do those kinds of things is really hard to achieve, unless you are really willing to make English your second language and use it 24/7.

Ok, that's what I try to do, LOL. I know I am crazy, but I love English and all these methods I often devise seem to make sense and work well, at least for me, hehe. If anyone else has anything to say on how to move from an upper-intermediate level to an advanced or very advance level of English, feel free to add your posts to this thread! Gotta go now...
CalifJim
One word I remember guessing wrong is "fester": I thought it had something to do with celebrating.
Hooooooo-eeeeeee!!! You made my day! <knee-slapping icon>
Oh, well, I have several other jokes, if you want. One time here on EF Amy (Yankee) told me something like "You are a man after my own heart", and I thought she had fallen in love with me. Maybe it was because she had added a "heart" emoticon too, I don't know, but I was kind of puzzled until I looked it up in my dictionary. And it turned out she simply wanted to say we both seemed to have the same opinions. Ahh, what a disappointment. ROTFL Emotion: big smile I wonder if Amy will ever read that... LOL, it's hidden in this long thread, so it's pretty safe. Emotion: stick out tongue
Anyway, that's an example of an idiom I have never bothered to learn (I just had to look it up again to be sure), because I have never come across it again and I have never "explicitely" tried to learn it (now with that software I would have a way to learn it though, but I am not going to add expressions I don't see too often or I am not likely to use).
This is really an informative, instructive, educative discussion. I am interested very much in language learning strategies and this post abounds with them.. Thank you

Btw, I really feel very curious to know which vocabulary software are you using, please.
We haven't seen Kooyeen on the forum for quite a long time, so I don't think we'll get an answer regarding the software package. It makes me regret that we didn't ask for more details when he was around more often.

(You noticed the dates, didn't you? All of our posts are dated.)

CJ
Students: We have free audio pronunciation exercises.