Vocabulary awareness

A vital part of academic writing is knowing when to use certain vocabulary and also making judgements for specific vocabulary. Apart from being expected to know your discipline specific vocabulary, a higher level of vocabulary knowledge and use is expected.

There are different levels of knowing a word, ranging from the basic meaning to its association (connotation). Not every word needs to be learnt in depth; however, as the level of studies and writing increases, so will the demand on vocabulary knowledge. The following links focus on the more common difficulties with vocabulary, with some hints for the Swedish audience.

Common errors

Writing at university requires language standards and accuracy. This can be perplexing even for the native speaker of English. Paul Brians, Emeritus Professor of English at Washington State University has provided an online resource for all the common errors used in English, and despite his work aiming at the native speaker of English, his bank of vocabulary errors is relevant also to the advanced non-native speaker (Brians, 2003).

Collocations (Common Clusters)

Collocations can be described as being two or three word clusters, which occur regularly in both spoken and written English. These combinations are used naturally for a native speaker of English and can cause difficulties for non-native speakers of English. Research has shown that learning these word combinations will improve your vocabulary and understanding and in effect, improve your writing skills.

The table below gives an example of how words can be combined to form what is referred to as a collocation:


Verb + noun

accept responsibility

Adjective + noun

square meal

Verb + adjective + noun

make steady progress

Adverb + verb

strongly suggest

Adverb + adjective

completely useless

Adverb + adjective + noun

totally unacceptable behaviour

Adjective + preposition

blamed for

Noun + noun

pay packet

Advice: when using collocations (click to expand/contract)

Although collocations are used in natural language, it is important be aware of the formal register when writing at university.

Definition: collocation (click to expand/contract)

If consulting Cambridge Dictionaries Online, the term 'collocation' is defined as:

  • [C](also collocate ) word or phrase which is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning

In the phrase 'a hard frost', 'hard' is a collocation of 'frost' and 'strong' would not sound natural.

  • [C] the combination of words formed when two or more words are often used together in a way that sounds correct

The phrase 'a hard frost' is a collocation.

  • [U] the regular use of some words and phrases with others, especially in a way which is difficult to guess
  • The Cambridge Dictionaries Online was accessed here.

For further reading: interactive exerices (click to expand/contract)

If you would like to try your skills, try these exercises in the following link:

Word frequency

As was mentioned elsewhere, at university you will encounter new words and come to recognise their frequency in texts and other forms of discourse, especially when becoming more encapsulated in texts and specialise in a subject.

The general and academic vocabulary used in writing at university accounts for approximately 90% of the vocabulary; however, the remaining 10%, which is built on discipline specific vocabulary and less frequent vocabulary, is of primary importance when writing at university.

Averil Coxhead (2000) has produced a list of the most frequently used general academic words in English. Her study showed that by becoming familiar with these high frequency word lists, comprehension is significantly boosted. Consequently, so is the vocabulary used in academic writing. Please see the link below:

Advice: software for vocabulary building (click to expand/contract)

Word lists are a great way to monitor how frequently certain words are used in a specific discipline. As your word lists grow, so does your vocabulary knowledge. The following website supplies a number of discipline specific vocabulary lists and software that enables you to see vocabulary groups and their relationships:

Word formation and building

The English language forms words by using prefixes and suffixes. These are Latin words meaning fix or attach one thing to another.

For example:

Pre+fix = to attach before the base word

Suf + fix = to attach after the base word

Base word








By understanding how words are formed and becoming familiar with the meaning of the prefixes and suffixes used in English, vocabulary knowledge tends to develop.

The following pdf files provide a list of prefixes and suffixes, their meanings and a vocabulary  example.



Advice: expand your lists (click to expand/contract)

The lists provided are not exhaustive; therefore, you may like to make additions as they are encountered.


Connotation considers all the suggestive and associative implications attached to a given word.

The most important thing when choosing vocabulary is to consider the meaning which you wish to convey and to make sure it matches the connotation.

A thesaurus (a book of synonyms) comes in handy when searching for word alternatives. There is also a thesaurus in the Microsoft Word tool box. It is an important tool when writing and a handy resource when word alternatives are hard to find. 

Example: connotation examples (click to expand/contract)

If you were to describe the build of someone as fat, there are different choices of connotation: 



stout, bulky


gross, obese

Humorous overtones

pleasantly plump, happily rounded


Words also can have a similar meaning but carry a different feel such as:









It is important to match the connotation of the word so it matches the meaning you want to convey.

Advice (click to expand/contract)

It is not uncommon for an individual to feel that the level of vocabulary knowledge is insufficient to cope with academic texts. If this is how you feel, extend your reading habits by reading as much as you can and as many varieties of texts types as you can. If you are a person who only likes to read the newspaper, read more newspapers more often in English. Choosing reading material that is enjoyable and dedicating more time to reading will increase your vocabulary knowledge and give you a better feel for the language.