All posts for the month July, 2016

By Doc Larrick, first published December 3, 2015 in the Dynamic Literacy newsletter

A common question that pops up when we do WordBuild vocabulary workshops around the country is this: How many words are there in the English language? That’s a tough question, and the answer is complicated, if not impossible to determine.

You’d think that answering such a question is a matter of counting the words in a reputable dictionary, say the twenty-volume Oxford or Webster’s Unabridged Third New International, each of which defines nearly half a million words. But no printed dictionary, as the editors of those esteemed works will tell you, can possibly contain every word–there is just no space, and the cost to attempt such a thing would be prohibitive, and no one could lift such a thing! references

Dictionary compilers must make decisions about what to include or exclude–words come and go, they are invented, they are discarded; they are borrowed; they are adapted to new meanings. The English language has been written down and has been evolving for 14 centuries and has distinct varieties all over the earth.

A company based in Texas keeps tabs electronically of texts produced in English, and it tallies the number of words as they become used: the latest count is over one million, twenty-five thousand, changing daily. But even that cannot be right!

Look at it this way. There is a word for every number, right? Try it. How high can you count aloud? If numbers are, well, infinite, so must words be. You will find seventy-three defined as an entry in the dictionaries, but not six thousand seventy-three. bignum

The American Chemical Society identifies over eight million named chemical substances. Biologists tell us that there are a million species of insects, all with distinct names. Exotic food names keep popping up into English all the time. Specialized dictionaries define thousands of words you won’t find in commercial standard dictionaries. Two of my favorites are Dorland’s great dictionary of medical terms, and Mrs. Byrne’s Dictionary of Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words.

Here’s another way to look at the difficulty. Take the word run. Easy enough. But there are also runs, running, rerun, reruns, runoff, runner, runners, and you will think of many, many more as you try to fall asleep tonight. You can run down the street or you can run down your shoes. The flu or overwork might make you look run-down, or the boss may ask for a rundown on the latest sales. Are run down (2 separate usages), run-down, and rundown different words? It’s not worth an argumentative run-in with anyone! Just enjoy the myriads of possibilities of English.

Bonus Video: The suffix er/or

This is a student video from WordBuildOnLine Foundations Level 1.

-By Doc Larrick, first published December 17, 2015 in the Dynamic Literacy News Letter

One of the goals of WordBuild is to arouse in students–of all ages–a curiosity about words.  Once you start looking at words as pieces of meaning, you develop the habit of noticing patterns and wondering about similarities among words.
For example, did you ever think about the pair of words, today and tonight?  Such familiar words!  But delving into them, after isolating the forms day and night, the keenly curious word student will start wondering about the prefix to– on both words, and probably come to the correct conclusion that to– means something like on this.   The next question that might occur to someone smitten with the love of how words work might be, “Are there other to– words?”

And then some fun begins.  Ah, there’s tomorrow–so what is amorrow, anyway?  And toward, and together!  What’s ward?  What’sgether?  Did you guess that morrow means morning , that ward is adirection and that gether is gather?   In England you’ll still hear the morning greeting “Good morrow”, it’s better to be toward than to be froward, and when things are gathered into one place, they are together.

Perhaps you have noticed that some writers spell the words as to-day and to-night.  Then was there a to-morrow? (The answer is yes).  Such observations in fact show how some words develop and progress.  An originally two-word phrase (to day) will become a hyphenated word (to-day) and then one word (today).

Not to make such a to-do about this, but phrases like to be and to go are now being used as adjectives (to wit, a bride tobe or a togo order of fries).  Can you see why the spellings of these new adjectives will probably remain hyphenated?  (The spellings tobe and togo would not readily be understood in print.)


Such wonderings and comparings lead to entertaining discoveries about words, and consulting a good dictionary with word histories (etymologies) is an enjoyable activity.  Doing so, you’ll even discover that once there was the word to-year (this year).   Put etymology-hunting on your todo list–you’ll be well-rewarded.  Stay tuned for more to come.

-By Doc Larrick, first published October 8, 2015 in the Dynamic Literacy News Letter

WordBuild is a program that builds a good vocabulary in an efficient and meaningful way.  It does not rely on memorization of lists of words.  It gives learners a chance to explore and discuss the deep structure that exists in word families.

Try memorizing this number:     434996893.

Now look at it this way: 434-996-893; or this way: 43-499-68-93.

Breaking the number into pieces makes it a little easier to deal with, doesn’t it?

It’s the same with words, except with words, we can discover ways to divide them up so that the meaning becomes clear, or clearer.

When I was a youngester, my aunt used to play word tricks on me.  She would say, for example, “Pronounce BACKAC  — HE“, and I would struggle with sounding out the syllables as she had spelled them: “bahk–kahk–he”, I kept saying.  Now if I had just written the syllables down, or had divided the letters up in a different way, I would have recognized BACK — ACHE, but my aunt had her laugh and I had my first lesson in how words work–not simply as strings of letter or syllables, but as pieces whose meanings I could recognize.

The WordBuild user will learn that by looking for recognizable parts in an unfamiliar word, meaningful pieces can often start to emerge.  For example, if you happen to run into the word dorsalgia, you might puzzle over it with your friends and someone may make a connection with endorsing (writing your name on the BACK of a check) and, say, neuralgia (nerve distress), so that you discover that dorsalgia is the medical term for BACKACHE!

BONUS:   The suffix ify

Enjoy this brief video that comes directly from WordBuildOnLine Foundations Level 1.