3 reasons why you shouldn’t use mnemonics (and tricks) to learn vocabulary


Vocabulary is vital to clear any exam worth its salt, be it SSC, IBPS PO, CAT, MAT, GMAT OR XLRI. Without proper knowledge of words and their usage, you cannot even begin to understand a language, let alone pass the exam.

Traditional approach to vocab learning

Below are some of the methods, students stick to when it comes to learning vocab –

  1. Mnemonics (by making absurd stories around words)
  2. Mindless cramming of words with their meanings in their mother tongue

Both these approaches have some innate problems which cripple a student in the exam.

1. You learn only one meaning of a word

When you learn words in isolation, stripped of their proper environment, you learn only the most common meaning. But few words in the English language have only one fixed meaning.

Words are not like stones that remain rigid and unchanged. They are fluid. They change their meaning based on the context in which they are used.

Consider for example a very common word – take. The most common meaning of this word is – to physically accept something. (लेना). Now take a look at the below sentences –

  1. Thieves took [=stole] the painting from the museum several years ago.
  2. We will take [=seizecapture] the city at dawn.
  3. She took [=borrowed] her dad’s car without his permission.

In the above three sentences, the meaning of the word take has changed significantly. Could you have imagined that a simple innocent word like ‘take’ could be used for something so nefarious as steal or seize?

The three examples given above also explain why some words in the English language has over 100 meanings (for eg – set)

2. You don’t learn the preposition with which a word is used

When you don’t learn words in their context, you don’t learn the prepositions with which they are used.

Take for example the following question of fill in the blanks –

1. When she was sick, her son did not attend _______ her. 
    a. to 
    b. on 
    c. at 
    d. over 
    e. No word needed.

If you have simply crammed the word list, you will likely find it difficult to solve this question. But a student who has learned vocab holistically in the context with the proper example sentences can do it easily.

The answer to this question is option b — on. Option a comes close but option b better fits the context.

  • Attend to— to deal with something or to take care of someone
  • Attend on — to be present with someone or remain nearby, especially to give protection, help or care.

Let’s take another example –

2. The master dispensed ________ the services of his servant. 
    a. up 
    b. with 
    c. from 
    d. through 
    e. No word needed

Again, you cannot apply any mathematical logic to get at the answer. This question can only be solved if you have learned words in their context with at least an example sentence each. The answer to this question is bwith.

3. You don’t learn the collocations

Collocations are a group of words which flow together. For example we use ‘heavy rain’ but not ‘thick rain’; ‘high temperature‘ but not ‘tall temperature‘.

Let’s see an example of how collocations are asked in the exam –

3. For a few seconds, he was ______ blinded by the powerful lights of the oncoming car.
    a. totally
    b. greatly
    c. powerfully
    d. largely
    e. heavily

Once again, the method of learning vocab through mnemonics will fail you.

At the first glance, it seems that all the options, except – c (powerfully), could be correct. Tough luck! the answer is a – totally. Why?

Because words flow well together only with certain other words. To qualify the adjective blind, the following adverbs can be used (in different contexts) –

  1. completely, totally
  2. almost, nearly
  3. momentarily, temporarily

We can say that these six adverbs are the collocations of the word blind.

Collocations are supremely important to master a language. Let me drive home the point by rewriting the part of the sentence with each of these adverbs.

These four sentences will sound clunky and awkward –

  1. He was greatly blinded by the powerful lights.
  2. He was largely blinded by the powerful lights.
  3. He was powerfully blinded by the powerful lights.
  4. He was heavily blinded by the powerful lights.

These three sentences will sound correct and melodious to your ear –

  1. He was completely blinded by the powerful lights.
  2. He was almost blinded by the powerful lights.
  3. He was momentarily blinded by the powerful lights.

A simple reading of these sentences would suffice in convincing you about the importance of collocations. In the questions of cloze test and fill in the blanks, collocations are your lifeline.

Now, if you are sweating at the thought of memorizing the collocations used with every word, let me calm your nerves. You don’t need to memorize any collocations. They come naturally to you when you learn words in their context through regular reading of newspapers and other material.

If you are convinced, you can buy my complete vocabulary course on Udemy which has over 39 hours of pure content with detailed example sentences and handwritten notes. It is one of the highest rated course (4.7 stars) on Udemy in this niche. Buy it from here.

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