Increasing your English Vocabulary Using Vocabulary/Word Lists

When you are learning a language, certainly there are highs and lows. I remember back to my Spanish classes in college, when a young, very frustrated lady asked the professor how she could improve her language abilities. She felt like she was doing everything right. She was studying and got good grades on her exams, yet she felt the ability to really master Spanish and speak it at a functional level was still elusive to her.

I still remember my professor’s response: increase your vocabulary.

At first I thought his response was sort of simplistic, but I now understand and somewhat agree. Once you have learned the basics of a language and the rules that outline its usage, learning more vocabulary words becomes the only way to elevate your communication and express yourself in a more nuanced way.

Of course, along with this, I think lots of practice and spending time in a region where the language is spoken are also two key factors that aid in improving your language abilities.

In fact, one day at a dollar store (of all places, I promise I don’t usually shop at dollar stores, just occasionally when I am bored… although they have interesting things that you would never find anywhere else, well maybe between interesting/wasteful/bizarre… I promise I have good taste), I found a little book titled “4000 Most Common Words in Spanish.” I enjoy making a good (and cheap) purchase. So indeed, I purchased this book and went down the list of common words, studying them in my spare time. Please also note this was indeed an unusual occurrence – I don’t recommend book shopping at the dollar store. Books at the dollar store are usually sent there because they don’t sell anywhere else. And no, you probably don’t need more cheap, plastic utensils in your kitchen that break within two weeks. (And for those unaware of the concept of a dollar store, it is where everything costs $1)

Okay, enough about the dollar store.

I was happy to find that a similar (and much better) list exists for ESL (English as a second language) speakers: The New General Service List.

Yes, from the title you would never imagine that the general service is in fact a list of the most common English words, as determined by Dr. Charles Browne, Dr. Brent Culligan, and Joseph Phillips ( If you master the words on this list, you will understand up to 92% of English words in written texts (of the texts selected by these fine fellows). There is some more history about this list, at the wikipedia page.

I also was happy to see an Academic Word List! Yes, now this is really useful! These words are common to academic writing and also available in downloadable/excel format, also from their webpage (

I really enjoyed one image on their webpage, at following:


Wow! What amazes me the most about this is to think that while 600,000 words exist in the English language, even us native English speakers only have a command of approximately 30,000 words.

I think I might go read a dictionary, right now.

Usage of indefinite (a/an) and definite (the) articles

Articles (a/an/the) are used to describe nouns (so they are placed right before a noun).

Examples:        the boat, a mother, the bees, an antelope, the computer, an hour

Some of the most frequent corrections I make during editing involve articles and their usage. But, I promise that article usage is really easy once to understand once you get a little bit of practice. Spanish also has indefinite and definite articles, and their usage follows a similar pattern to English. However, I think where many English as a second language (ESL) learners get unnecessarily confused is with the, which may be used in slightly different ways in English.

But first things, first.

The indefinite articles are a/an, and these are used to talk about any nonspecific object/noun or to make general statements. In particular, they are used with countable, single nouns (we will get to plural, later).

A is used before consonants (s, n, t, etc.), while an is used before any word with a vowel sound or that starts with a vowel (a, e, i, o, u). Just remembers that consonants are basically any letter and its corresponding sound that are not vowels. In any case, pronunciation takes precedence – you’ll see this in the examples below.


an hour (h is silent in this case, forming a vowel sound, and so an is used)

a horse (h is pronounced in this case, forming a consonant sound, and so a is used)

an enemy (e/vowel sound)

a woman (w/consonant sound)

a purple penguin

an interesting movie

Now, what exactly makes something nonspecific and deserving of an indefinite article (a/an)?

Something/someone is nonspecific if you have never met them or seen them/it before, or if they are one of many. It isn’t something that you have immediately at hand and is removed from you, either physically or figuratively. Nonspecific also means that you aren’t referring to a specific individual, thing, or animal. This can be best illustrated with examples.


I saw a cat yesterday.

(While you certainly saw one, specific cat, it may be the first time you have seen this random cat walking down the street. Never met the cat before!)

I watched an elephant eat a monkey.

(Again, this is some crazy weirdo elephant that you have never seen before, you don’t know his name or who his owner is, you don’t know his current whereabouts or even where he comes from.)

A cup of coffee makes everything better.

(Here, you are speaking in general about coffee. You aren’t referring to a single, specific cup of coffee that you have in your possession at this very moment.)

The duty of a worker bee is to gather pollen.

(Again, this could be any worker bee. In general, all worker bees do this. You aren’t referring to a specific worker bee that you hold in your possession. If you hold her in your possession, please let her go!)

However, if we slightly modify the above examples and use PLURAL nouns instead of singular nouns, articles are no longer necessary.


I saw several cats yesterday on my street.

I watched elephants at the park.

Cups of coffee were sitting on the table.

Worker bees are hard at work.


Meanwhile, definite articles (the) are used to describe specific nouns. Specific nouns/things/people/animals may be definite in the sense that you know them or are familiar with them already. You are referring to a specific, known person or object, or perhaps a person or object or event that occurred at a specific place, date and time.


I saw the cat yesterday.

(This is a cat that you habitually see, perhaps it is the same cat always hanging out your neighborhood. You know exactly which cat you are talking about.)

I watched the elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.

(This again, is a specific elephant. Not any old elephant, but the elephant in the picture that you took at the San Diego zoo.)

I watched an elephant at the San Diego zoo eat a banana.

(This is also correct, but the context changes slightly. You are referring to one of many elephants, and any one elephant in particular wasn’t very memorable.)

The cup of coffee is on the table.

(You are referring to a specific, single cup of coffee, that is physically at hand/at reach.)

The worker bee flew back to her hive, full of pollen.

(Again, here you are referring to a specific worker bee, not one of many.)

The best shoes are always found on sale.

(The often modifies superlatives: best, biggest, tallest, etc.)

Yesterday, I met the tallest man I had ever seen.

I purchased the most beautiful dress I could find.

So, perhaps an interesting perception from these examples is that the/an/a are also interchangeable in many cases, yet the meaning/significance of the sentence will change, ever so slightly.


In addition, abstract nouns (faith, love, hope, inspiration, hatred, etc.) often do not require articles (except in certain instances). This is different in Spanish and English, for example:

  1. El amor es difícil. (article required)


  1. Love is difficult. (no article required)

Here are some examples differentiating when an article would or wouldn’t be required:

  1. Hatred was nothing new to Joe. (hatred in general, Joe just happens to be a hateful person)


  1. The hatred Joe held for his distant relative never seemed to cease. (hatred for something specific/over a specific event or perhaps due to lifelong events).


Another interesting point that is particularly relevant to scientific or academic writing is that the is often repetitive and unnecessary. That’s right, the isn’t even always necessary, even in cases where it would be correct to use it. I believe this responds mostly to technical and scientific writing conventions. Let’s take the following example:

  1. The samples were taken from the rivers at point A and point B, during the dry and rainy seasons. (with articles)


  1. Samples were taken from rivers at point A and point B, during dry and rainy seasons. (without articles)

In general, I prefer the second statement, even though both are correct. Imagine that prior to the second sentence you had already talked about the rivers forming part of the sampling process. In this case, it is clear, even in the second sentence, that you are referring to specific rivers that are forming part of your study (and not rivers in general). This responds to a more direct, clear and succinct writing style.




Hyphens, en-dashes, and em-dashes (and the bane of my existence)

There are three types of little hyphens (- – —) that may be used in English. This could be an interesting point to study for someone learning or writing English as a second language, as I have noticed that hyphens are used often differently in Spanish. In fact, I see this to be a perfect example of contextual habits and customs in written language. Another example of this is the differential use of quotation marks (“”) across languages.

This is a rather minor detail, as it is certainly more important to write with correct grammar and sentence structure. However, I frequently make corrections on hyphen and em-dash usage, and attending to this point is a simple way to improve one’s writing.

So, once again, here are the three little hyphen-like lines that you can use in English:

Hyphen: –

En dash: –

Em dash: —

Now, you are going to have to look at these very closely to the see the difference and that these little suckers are, in fact, different lengths. The hyphen is the shortest, and the em-dash is the longest. And the en-dash is a nice compromise in between the two. The only purpose of these little lines is to make your life more complicated while writing in English (just kidding).

Sometimes I imagine that one day, long, long ago… three little old men were sitting around a table at the Oxford Academy of the Proper and Correct Usage of the English Language (this is actually I name that I just invented two seconds ago while writing this) and decided to make things more difficult for their peons (also known as students) by inventing a new way to make writing even more complicated. Nevermind that you would rather just use a hyphen for everything – now you have to decide whether to use a hyphen, en-dash, or em-dash. The length of this little tiny line seems to make all the difference in the world (not really).

I request that you don’t take me seriously all the time.

Interestingly enough, there IS an Academia Real Española, the “official” royal academy in charge of dictating what is right and wrong in written (and in theory, spoken) Spanish.  To my knowledge, there is no single “academy” that dictates English usage, at least equivalent to the Spanish academy. In fact, true to English style, lots of authors have published their own guidelines that have converted themselves into semi-official Bibles of the English language. I would be curious to know as to whether or not there is in fact an “official” and recognized guideline or academy for the English language in the United Kingdom or any other English-speaking country, but certainly, in the United States, no single institution is seen as the ultimate authority on the subject.

But, as convention dictates, I will now outline their modes of usage.

– – —- – — – – — – – —- – — – – —- – —- – — – – —- –

Hyphens are almost always used to separate words or to separate a prefix from a root word. A lot of this usage, in my opinion, is based on custom, as many words have prefixes yet don’t automatically need to be written with a hyphen. Thus, hyphens are used, in a sense, to stress and highlight prefixes and their significance.

For example: pre- and post- treatment, semi-automatic, and check-in

Pre- and post- treatment is an interesting example worth looking at. Another similar example is mid- and long- term. Again, I should repeat that hyphens (-) are sometimes optional. For example, you could say both semiautomatic (without a hyphen) and semi-automatic (with a hyphen), and both are considered conventionally correct (unless you are following a style guide that dictates hyphen usage). As usual, I would say the most important thing is consistency (always or never use a hyphen for the same word every time it is repeated in your writing).

However, if you want more specific guidelines, Stephen Wilbers has written an excellent guide on hyphenated words, found at the following link:

Here, he has a list of many commonly hyphenated words and provides more exact guidelines for knowing when to hyphenate. This really is an excellent list and explanation, and I could never even attempt to re-create something as similarly wonderful. So, I wholeheartedly recommend his guidelines!

Let’s return now to the example of pre- and post- treatment, and mid- and long- term. In this case, the hyphen becomes a useful way of shortening your writing. For example, you could also say “in the midterm and longterm,” but “mid- and long- term” is a more aesthetically pleasing way to talk and write. You could also write “mid- and longterm,” but I would have preference for the “mid- and long- term” format, since I consider this to be more correct and to definitively highlight the prefixes as such. This formatting is frequently used in scientific writing.

Check-in, my final example from above, takes on a special meaning when used as a hyphenated word (vs. check and in, which have different meanings and usages on their own). So this is another application, so to speak, of hyphenated words.

For use in academic of scientific writing, the most frequent use for the en-dash (–) will be dates, months, and number ranges. I frequently see people write ranges of numbers or dates with hyphens, for example: 15-20 pairs, January 20-30. I have to admit that I am a stickler on this point, as the en-dash should be used for these instances, for example, the time period of 2000–2005 or a temperature range of 15–20 °C. I am beginning to think that this could in fact be an aesthetic concern, as I do indeed think that 2000–2005 (en-dash) looks prettier than 2000-2005 (hyphen). I should note that in the font used for this blog, the difference between the hyphen and en-dash is not very evident, but they are in fact, different lengths. In other fonts and font sizes, the difference may become more evident.

And finally, use em-dashes (a little bit longer than the en-dash) for separating two distinct but related ideas or to represent natural breaks in speech patterns. These have applications in formal and academic writing, but like many things in life – they are best when used in moderation. I frequently use these in personal communication and e-mails, since they just seem to work with a “train of thought” style of writing. For example:

Please let me know what you think – I can make any changes to your document if necessary.

This follows a very natural speech pattern and train of thought.

In 2005 in Mexico, the majority of crops produced were corn – Panama followed the same pattern.

The above is another example more relevant to academic writing, although in many cases you could just separate the two phrases above (by putting a period after the first phrase) or find a simpler way of formatting these ideas. So yes, em-dashes can add variety and spice to your writing, but only when you don’t over-spice it.

One final rule: no more than ONE em-dash per sentence. Just like the semi-colon, if you use too many… your reader will just get annoyed with you! Too much of anything is never a good thing.

¿Cómo escribir la introducción de un artículo científico?

I recently saw this video on academic writing shared on Facebook. It is from the Casa d’Estudis El Pont. It is a podcast/lecture from a class on how to write the introduction of your paper, and there is a corresponding PowerPoint slideshow as a visual aid.

It is a good resource, and in Spanish!

Please view using the following link:

Use Parallel Structure

In a way I don’t like giving strict advice. The creative side of my brain wants to believe in the potential to experiment with words and sentence form. The creative side of my brain believes that anything goes. I don’t always like to tell people how to write, because writing is one of those things that is subjective. It is art form and a vehicle of expression!

However, if we are to return to academic or scientific writing, one thing that will easily and immensely improve the clarity of your writing is the use of parallel structure. I suppose that academic writing is mainly about communicating ideas, arguments, and research findings, and so perhaps more experimental forms of writing should be relegated to literature. Okay, perhaps not relegated, but reserved for use outside of academic writing 🙂 (please ignore everything just written and proceed to the next paragraph)

Parallel structure in the context of writing basically means that there is a sort of consistency and pattern in the elements of a sentence that are similar in type.

This is best illustrated by examples.

For example:

“Erosion is caused by the compaction of soil, deforesting vegetation, poorly infiltrating soil, and high wind velocity.”

Notice that in the above sentence, compaction and velocity may both be considered to be nouns. While, deforesting and infiltrating may also be used as nouns, they are in a different format/tense from the other elements of the list. I don’t want to get into verb tenses specifically in this section, but I would consider the following to be an improvement:

“Erosion is caused by the compaction of soil, deforestation of vegetation, poor water infiltration, and high wind velocity.”

Notice that all of the elements in the list are now nouns and in similar format. While these are things that are not necessarily similar in nature, they still follow a similar pattern or structure in their description.

Maybe we can take a look at a simpler sentence:

“Johnny likes to bike, run, and hike.”

The verbs in bold are all the same tense, so this works well. We could also say:

“Johnny likes biking, running, and hiking.”

This also works well because all of the elements are in the same format/tense. And also:

“Johnny likes to bike, to run, and to hike.”

Good. What would NOT work is:

“Johnny likes biking, to run, and hike.”

While this sentence may sound very obviously awkward, this sort of awkwardness can sometimes be overlooked in longer or more complex sentences.

For example:

“Species richness had decreased in cow pastures with intermittent grazing and was higher in well-preserved riparian remnants.”

As your sentences become more complex, it becomes easier to accidentally use structures that aren’t parallel. Whether the above is actually incorrect might be a finer point of discussion. However, the above sentence would be easier to read and understand if it used similar verb tense throughout. For example:

“Species richness had decreased in cow pastures with intermittent grazing and had increased in well-preserved riparian remnants.”

Now this only works if “cow pastures” and “riparian remnants” were truly comparable in relationship to species richness within the context of the study (i.e., they both formed experimental units). If not, they would be best separated into two separate structures or sentences.

Similar structure often gives a more authoritative sound and feel to your writing, as if you are communicating your ideas as directly and clearly as possible.

So any time you are connecting two elements in a sentence by a conjunction (and, but, so, yet, or, etc.), try to use a similar structure for the elements that are being connected, compared, or contrasted.

Use Specific Adjectives and Precise Descriptions

Perhaps one of the easiest ways a language learner can improve their expression, communication, and writing in another language is by increasing their vocabulary.

This isn’t an easy task, but you can first focus on using more specific and more descriptive terminology when communicating an idea. This is especially applicable to technical, academic, and scientific writing, where you should focus on communicating facts, data, or other research findings as precisely and specifically as possible.

For example:

“Bananas are one of the most important crops.”


“Bananas are the second most cultivated tropical crop worldwide in terms of volume, and in Mexico alone, over 95,000 tons are consumed per year.”

In this case, the second phrase is superior to the first. In the first phrase, bananas are just important. Important is a descriptive adjective that doesn’t give a lot of additional information. A lot of things are important, for example: socks, coffee, the sun and the moon, your boyfriend, global warming, etc.

You should ask yourself in this case, “What makes bananas (or any other subject) important in the context of my study?” and “What phrase could I substitute for important that would include more interesting or precise information?”

While it may be appropriate to use general statements, such as:

“Global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity.”

You should always use these types of statements to lead into the specifics of your paper or subject. For example:

“Global warming is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity, and its effects are already evident in the sharp declines in agricultural output in many regions of the world. In Mexico alone, it was estimated last year that global warming had reduced crop yields by 35% (Bruselas et. al, 2014).”

(Please note that these statements were invented by myself to use as examples, and shouldn’t be considered to be facts.)

While we have already reviewed the case of important, another example would be the use of very. Very implies extremely, yet very rarely communicates precise information.

“The study was very important for the advancement of knowledge in plant-insect interactions.”

“The trees flowered very early in the season.”

Again, these statements aren’t necessarily poorly written and might be appropriate in certain contexts, but in the case of scientific writing, we should always default to the specific. I consider the following to be improvements:

“This study lead to an improvement in our knowledge on the factors influencing insect preference in selecting plants for oviposition.”

“The trees flowered, on average, two months earlier in comparison to previous seasons.”

So once again, to review, avoid general adjectives and descriptive phrases that aren’t precise. If you use a general description or statement, please find a way to incorporate it into the specifics of your study.

Thesauruses are also good resources for finding alternative descriptive words and adjectives. is a website that I frequently use for my own work, and I find it to be very useful for American English. These should be used with caution, as many words are generally synonymous yet vary slightly or hold a slightly different connotation.