Vocabulary: Ten-Dollar Words

November 30, 2018

Vocabulary: Ten-Dollar Words

In this blog entry we would like to discuss a general writing tip for test-takers. Many tests of English writing such as IELTS and CELPIP assess your ability to use a range of high-level English vocabulary.

One trap that writers often fall into is using long words that they don’t know the precise meaning of, because they think that it will raise the level of their writing. But rare words in English tend to have very precise meanings, and may only be appropriate in certain contexts. Using a ten-dollar word does not always pay off.

For instance, you might want to write that there is a lot of something, but you want to make it sound more sophisticated. The word ‘plethora,’ which is uncommon in English, is often overused by test-takers for just this purpose. But using this word incorrectly or in the wrong context harms rather than improves your writing.

Take the following example. A student might write the following about their hometown:

“There is a plethora of fun things to do in Rio de Janeiro.”

A Google search of plethora gives a very specific definition and an example:

  1. a large or excessive amount of (something).

"a plethora of committees and subcommittees"

And it provides synonyms to help you understand the exact meaning of the word:

synonyms: excess, overabundance, superabundance, surplus, glut, superfluity, surfeit, profusion; too many, too much, enough and to spare;

Notice the words, ‘excess,’ ‘overabundance’ and ‘too much.’ In other words, a plethora is a bad thing, which means that you can’t have ‘a plethora of fun things.’

Furthermore, plethora is too fancy a word for the context – the night-life of Rio de Janeiro. The word is often used in medical and scientific writing, and so it sounds strange in the context of fun activities, especially if one is writing an informal letter. In such cases, it’s far better to use a more common expression, such as ‘a wide variety of,’  ‘a great deal of,’ or even ‘so many’ fun things to do.

Always check Google or a dictionary before you attempt to bring a new word into an exam. Be prepared not to use the word if the context does not call for it. Precision and clarity are more important than variety in good writing.

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