Recently, an SAT tutor using Vocabulary.com told us that the greatest challenge most of us face when learning vocabulary is being fuzzy on words, "thinking we know what a word means, but when push comes to shove, discovering that we do not."

Has this ever happened to you? You're playing Vocabulary.com and you come across a question on a word you've always been sure you know. And you do know that word. Sort of. Perhaps you have associations with that word. Perhaps it sounds just like another word you're comfortable with. Perhaps you've encountered that word in your reading and it doesn't slow you down.

But when presented with a list of synonyms or a fill in the blank question or even a list of potential definitions, you find you're not one hundred percent sure which one is correct. Or you are sure, but when you chose, your answer is wrong.

Why does this happen?

The answer is that these are words we're on the way to learning. Since we first began acquiring language, we've been getting to know words encounter by encounter, learning a little more about them each time we see them, forgetting them between times, slowly absorbing subtleties of usage and multiple meanings and important information about when it's not okay to use them when we see them yet again.  

It's important to understand how this works, so we don't start doubting our progress as we learn words. Step away from the black and white concept of knowing or not knowing a word. Instead, imagine a Vocabulary.com progress bar making infinitesimal jumps toward completion each time you encounter every word. Keep reading and writing and speaking with people with rich vocabularies, and you'll absorb all those meanings eventually. The fuzzy soft focus on these words will sharpen over time. 

The only question is how fast you want to transform these hazy acquaintances into friends with whom you're in regular contact. If you want to pick up the pace, another SAT tutor recommends wide reading and making a regular habit out of Vocabulary.com. Which is good news for you, since you're already here.

So get to work! Your next question awaits.

P.S. And look on the bright side. At least you're not in the food-in-your-teeth position of being mistaken about a word's meaning and using it anyway.

Want to learn more about how your brain takes in meaning and learns words? Check out: