Honing My English Vocabulary More Effortlessly

“I hate writing, I love having written” — Dorothy Parker

As I rigorously examine and rexamine the lines you’re about to read, I cannot help but share Parker’s sentiment. Writing is hard, and it’s hard seven times over when you do it in a language that’s barely present in your daily life. (by default, at least.)

I try my best for you not to notice this, but the truth is English isn’t my first language. Not only that, it has nothing in common with the other two languages that I do speak at a native level. English, after all, is of the Indo-European family, while Hebrew and Arabic are of the Afroasiatic one.

Yet, I read mainly and write exclusively in English.

My affection towards English is rooted in my inbred passion for technology, but in the last decade it grew to a passion on its own, rather than a mere byproduct. Today, I take great interest in the nuts and bolts of the language and its underlying cultures, and I’m a voracious consumer of English texts.

The appeal of the English language in the eye of a non-native writer like me is in the richness and scope on one hand, and on the other — the ability to convey ideas of varying complexity with a single expression.

Take, for example, the word “Infatuation”:

An object of extravagant, short-lived passion; state of being carried away by unreasoned passion or love. Usually, one is inspired with an intense but short-lived passion or admiration for someone.

More: Asinine. Untenable. Ostensible. Mundane.

These words aren’t cited here for bravado. They simply demonstrate the precision and effectiveness by which one can express himself. If English isn’t your mother-tongue, try to think whether there are one-word terms for these concepts in your native language; I know there aren’t in mine.

Honing My Vocabulary: Translation & Definition

After grammar, which I am yet to perfect, my main concern is richness and versatility. Words are the tools of trade, and while I oppose the use of pompous terms unnecessarily, I do fear dullness and repetitiveness.

That’s why I proactively look for ways to expand my English vocabulary. This usually happens in two ways:

  • Translation: If there’s a term I want to use that I either don’t know or can’t recall the English equivalent for. This comes up mainly when writing.

  • Definition: When I come across a term in English that I don’t recognize or can’t quite remember the meaning of. This is how I learn while reading.

To ensure my term acquisition process is effective, any newly acquired word goes to a plain text file stored in my Dropbox folder (for later access and memorization).

Up until recently, every step in this process was manual: Launching the browser, then the bookmark for the dictionary or the translation website, copying the newly acquired word and its definition, opening the file, and finally, pasting the definition.

By now you can begin to imagine how interruptive this was to my reading, and more so, to my writing flow. And it’s not like I have any focus, inspiration, or writing-talent to spare.

Luckily the recent switch from Windows to OS X also introduced me to two of my currently most favorite applications: Alfred and TextExpander.

Streamlining My Word Acquisition Process: Definitions

With OS X’s “Lookup” feature, some of the effort was already spared: I no longer had to leave the page I’m reading to see the definition for the word in question. But, I still had to copy the pop-up’s contents, open the designated Dropbox file, and paste them there.

In an ideal world — one where I’m a super-programmer — I’d have a workflow that appends any word I lookup to my Dropbox file, with the definition right below it.

I came pretty close.

Thanks to TextExpander and a shell-script snippet I found on The Overthinker, things are much faster today: I lookup a word with the three-finger-tap, copy the definition from within the pop-up dialog, and invoke the TE snippet by hitting ;;//. When triggered, this snippet automatically appends my clipboard’s contents to the end of the text file, and adds some relevant metadata. No need to open anything or interrupt whatever I’m doing for more than 10 seconds.

Here are my (minor) modifications of George Coghill’s original snippet:

#!/bin/bash
DATE_PREPEND=$(date +"%Y-%m-%d")
FILE_CONTENT=$(pbpaste)
echo -e "\n#### $FILE_CONTENT \n (Saved on $DATE_PREPEND)" >> /Users/me/Dropbox/docs-essays/
wordstolearn.txt

After the trivial step of changing the file-path, I also adjusted the date format to a more basic version and moved it to display below (instead of above) the clipboard text. And here’s a sample-output (image) from the text file, which has been expanding rapidly.

You can download my modified TextExpander workflow here. Again, all credit goes to Geroge Coghill from The Overthinker.

Note: TextExpander snippets are “Plain Text” by default. Be sure to change this to “Shell Script” from the dropdown menu.

Translation: Alfred Workflows

Automating the translation process was an even easier task. I had previously thought Alfred workflows were only meant to be utilized by programmers and those who know scripting languages, so while I enjoyed most of Alfred’s features, I left this one alone.

I was wrong.

All it took was looking at the preloaded workflows and then deriving how I needed to construct my own. And so here’s how I translate today: Launch Alfred with + Space, type trans followed by the word I want to translate, and hit Return. Alfred launches the browser, passes the word (parameter) to the website’s search URL, and the result appears right in front of me as if I opened the browser myself, went to the website, typed the word in the search field, and hit Return.

Optionally, I can then three-finger-tap (lookup) the translated word, copy the pop up’s contents, and invoke the aforementioned TextExpander snippet to add them to my Dropbox file.

You can download my Alfred workflow demo here.

Note: If you plan to use this workflow for similar purposes, I suggest you find a website that accepts bilingual queries, so you can translate both ways.

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