Alert English speakers at every level can learn new words every day. If we’re reading and listening actively, we’ll come across unfamiliar or forgotten terms. And with a little conscious effort, we can remember them long-term. We can do this by taking three simple steps.

Recently, I heard a word on the radio that I’d never heard before: janky. The speaker was describing a type of low-cost DYI (Do-It-Yourself) air purifier that people are building to help ventilate school classrooms this fall. He said the home-built purifier was a “janky box” with various filters and fans attached with tape.

“Janky”? That’s a word I’d like to know! Note-taking isn’t always convenient when we’re concentrating on listening, but this word seemed worth catching before it escaped. That’s the first step in remembering vocabulary: catch words that interest you by writing them down.

Looks a Bit Janky Back There, by Lloyd Bishop

“Janky” got me scrambling for a pen because I liked its sound — JANG-key — and I wondered if its meaning might be a blend of “junky” and “jangly,” with a bit of “funky” and “wacky” mixed in. Also, the context in which it came up seemed to confirm my hunch: calling a homemade machine a “janky box” suggested it looked junky and funky, and maybe those taped-on fans and filters even jangled as they whirled and whirred!

Looking the word up, I found “janky” is a casual American adjective meaning “low quality; unreliable.” That’s pretty close to “junky” (“of poor quality or little value”), and could relate to things with metal parts that jangle (“make high-pitched metal-on-metal or harsh ringing sounds”).

But wait a minute! The speaker on the radio called those home-built air purifiers “janky,” but the report went on to emphasize how well they work — even better than expensive factory-made items. So why call them “janky”?

Since I could look up the original radio report on the internet, I could replay it and listen more carefully to the context. That’s the second step in remembering new words: notice the context in which you hear or read them.

Replaying the report, I heard the speaker’s exact words: “It looks like a sort of janky box that has ….” So he’s not saying the purifier “is” janky. Instead, he qualifies (softens) the word with “sort of” and says it “looks” janky — “like a sort of” boxy contraption — and this sort-of-janky-looking thing can clean the air in a classroom continuously for a whole school year! He’s having fun with this jaunty word, tossing it lightly at a goofy-looking gadget that turns out to be a highly effective, cost-efficient device.

Since this is my first experience with “janky,” it’s prudent for me to try using it the way I heard it. That’s the third step in remembering new words: do something with them, use them, starting in ways you’re already familiar with, in contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them. 

So for now, I won’t call anything “janky” outright. Instead, I’ll qualify and downplay the word, and use it to describe appearances: “That looks sort of janky,” or “Well, it’s a little janky, but ….” 

Dictionary.com (see source notes below) labels “janky” as slang and lists more meanings: “not working or operating properly; untrustworthy or disreputable [person]; undesirable; dilapidated, run-down.” With such negative meanings, it’s probably best for me to delay applying my new word directly to things people might actually like or value, or to people themselves!

Interestingly, “janky” is followed by “(ph)” in the transcript of the radio report I mentioned. The “(ph)” means “phonetically”: a note that the transcriber was unfamiliar with the word and guessed its spelling based on its sound. So “janky” was new to that professional listener, too.

Let’s review our three steps for reinforcing new words in your long-term memory:

-1- Catch words that interest you by writing them down.

-2- Notice the context in which you hear or read them.

-3- Use them! Aim for contexts similar to those in which you’ve encountered them.

What new word have you learned lately? What did you find attractive or intriguing about it? Asking yourself (and others) these questions can inspire you to “get vocal” with your new verbal tools!

* * * * *

SOURCES: National Public Radio, Morning Edition program (NPR.com: “Delta Variant Makes It Even More Important To Have Improved Air Quality In Schools,” August 25, 2021); Google dictionary (google.com: “janky,” “junky”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “janky,” “jangle”); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “ph” [Adverb entry]).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2021.

What Word Speaks to You?

August 30, 2021

Vagabonding in France with Friends, by Lloyd Bishop

You know how a particular smell can evoke a vivid memory or powerful feeling? Is there a word in English that does that for you? 

Emotional connections and mental associations with words vary from person to person: a word I find exotic may disgust you, or a word you enjoy saying might embarrass me!

It can be fun knowing certain words speak to you; that is, they represent or express something meaningful to you. Finding them, becoming aware of their “powers,” and using them deliberately are satisfying experiences in themselves. 

There’s a practical benefit, too: doing this helps you become a word cultivator, a grower of vocabulary. You’ll become more conscious about which words you choose to use, and more eager to add new words to your active supply.  

To inspire you on this word-seeking journey, I’ll share an example of my own. Recently, the word vagabond caught my eye, and then it lingered in my mind. I realized I really like that word, and I wondered why. 

Looking carefully at some dictionary entries, however, I saw negative aspects indicating that some people might not share my enthusiasm. Readers of this article may have diverse reactions to “vagabond.” 

The basic meaning of “vagabond” is “a person who wanders from place to place; a wanderer.” I’ll mention its less pleasant nuances in a moment. Right now, I invite you to say the word aloud, stressing the first syllable: 

VAA-guh-bond 

Or if you prefer phonetic symbols: gə bɑnd

When you say it, do you have any particular feeling or association? If so, note it now, before I discuss my own, so you can accurately recall your immediate reaction.

For me, “vagabond” is an alluring word. The idea of wandering has an old, familiar charm. I was a restless kid who fell in love with outdoor travel and adventure. “Vagabond” vibrates with the excitement of the unknown, the romance of the road, discoveries to be made just over the horizon and, best of all, along the way. 

In fact, the word literally vibrates: all eight of its letters are voiced; that is, our vocal cords vibrate to produce consonants v, g, b, n, d, and vowels are always voiced. That’s why I ask you to say it aloud: give it your voice and you’ll feel it vibrate! 

Also, I find the ONE-two-three rhythm, with its unstressed but long final syllable, resonant and satisfying: VAA-guh-bonnnd.

“Vagabond” evokes memories of bicycle trips I took as a teenager, which featured a lot of improvising and plan-changing, and roundabout walks I’ve often taken with no destination in mind. More broadly, “vagabond” is a vision of “the wanderer,” the wayfaring mystic, someone who knows that magic still exists and can be found, if we only look for it. 

Dictionaries offer meanings and synonyms of “vagabond” that range from neutral — “a person who travels from place to place” — to unstable or unpleasant — “unsettled or aimless wanderer, drifter, hobo, tramp, vagrant, irresponsible idler, loafer, loiterer, street person, beggar, bum.” 

My thinking is that with all those other words to express degrees of disdain, why lump “vagabond” in with the rest? It has its own distinct open-air, open-road free spirit! 

I wonder how perceptions of the word vary across cultures. For example, I’ve heard Great Britain permits overland walking: cross-country rambling, hiking between towns, along farmers’ fields, and through woods, whether public and private. Meanwhile, in the USA, “No Trespassing” signs abound on private property — a slight improvement over “Trespassers Will Be Shot” versions, but threatening nevertheless.

As security concerns and social distrust mount, and human life retreats indoors, “vagabond” could be losing its appeal. And with its associations ranging from unhoused people to social parasites, “vagabond” may require judicious use in public. That’s OK with me. I’ll give “my” word the special treatment it deserves, and choose contexts that welcome its promise of a story.

*  *  *  *  *  

SOURCES: Google dictionary (google.com: “vagabond,” “vagrant,” and related entries); Cambridge English Dictionary (dictionary.cambridge.org: “vagabond,” “vagrant”); Merriam-Webster Dictionary (merriam-webster.com: “vagabond”); Dictionary.com (dictionary.com: “vagabond”).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 26, 2021.

Last Wall Standing, by Lloyd Bishop

In a recent post, we explored connections between some words beginning with “scr-.”  Finding connections between vocabulary words with similar sounds and spellings can help you remember them longer. This time, let’s examine some “st-” words with related ancient roots.

There are thousands of words beginning with “st-,” but this short initial list I made — stand, stable, static, steady, staunch, stem — got me wondering: how related are they? Pondering their meanings, would you agree these words suggest an upright position, vertical state, constant condition, or firmness?

Sure enough, their etymologies reveal an ancestral root meaning “to stand, be firm, make firm.” Adjective static (“unchanging, remaining in a constant state”) looks and sounds like its ancient Greek parent statikos, which meant “causing to stand, skilled in weighing/balancing.” It turns out that static is closely related to lots of other st- words, like stay, state, status, station, and stationary.

In fact, the Latin word for state was status, meaning “a station, position, place; way of standing, posture; order, arrangement, condition,” according to Etymonline (see source note below). These meanings are still associated with English status and state. In 14th-century English, state came to mean “political organization of a country, government,” based on Latin phrases with meanings like “condition of the country.”

Steady became common only about 500 years ago as an updated version of steadfast, referring to things firmly fixed in place. Over time, both words increasingly referred to firmness of mind, constancy of character, and constant rate of progress. The earlier word stead (“place, position; standing, firmness, stability”) survives today, but mainly in the adverb instead (“in place of”).

Like steadfast, staunch often means “loyal” when referring to friends, allies, and supporters, but its evolution from the “stand/firm” roots took a roundabout route through Old French in a word meaning “watertight” — that is, water-stopping, which is what the closely related verb stanch (notice: no letter “u” in spelling) still means: “stop the flow of a fluid (like blood).” 

So if you have a staunch ally or friend, then your alliance is watertight and your friendship is as strong as steel (yet another word based on those ancient “stand/firm” roots, thanks to its iron-surpassing toughness and durability: ability to stand up to or withstand anything).

A stem is the upright support for a plant, a wine glass, and similar structures, and it used to refer to more massive vertical supports like tree trunks. Interestingly, a cousin of our ancestral “stand/firm” root, meaning both “post, stem” and “to support, place firmly on” and also led to step (“to place one foot in front of the other,” or “a support or resting place for the foot”) and staff (“a thick wooden rod, support pole, walking stick”). A staff might be used ceremonially or as a symbol of authority; such use by military commanders led to the meaning “group of officers,” and (later) “group of employees.” 

Different but apparently related ancestral roots meaning “to stick, pierce, push” and “sharp, pointed” inspired words like stick, steep, steeple, and stimulate. This sense of pointed pushing extended to notions of “bumping, butting, knocking, beating, blocking, closing off,” and led to words like stop and stuff, which relate to ending movement, blocking flow, or plugging up.

In the days of knights in armor, stuff was the padding stuffed under a warrior’s metal garments for comfort in combat! This meaning arose from a French word for “quilted material, furniture, provisions,” according to Etymonline. That wide variety of materials and equipment broadened into the “all sorts of things” meaning of stuff today.

Finally, the ancient “push/knock/beat” roots inspired both study, via Lain studere — “to be diligent” — in the sense of pushing oneself forward, toward greater understanding, and stupid, from Latin words meaning “struck senseless” and “stunned, amazed, confounded.” So students beware: too much studying can be stupefying!

* * * * *

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “stand,” “state,” “stead,” “staunch,” “steel,” “step,” “staff,” “stuff,” “study,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “step,” “stop,” and related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 13, 2021.

Scraping the Sky, by Lloyd Bishop

When you’re learning English, finding relationships between vocabulary words and grouping them can help you remember them longer. Speakers of English as a first language can also find such connections interesting and worth sharing with learners.

You can sometimes sense a connection between words based on their sounds and spellings. Words beginning with “s” plus another consonant or two — like those beginning with “scr-” — start off in the same way, and I’ve been wondering how related they really are. 

I’ve noticed some “scr-” words give me an immediate feeling of friction, rubbing, or cutting, like scrape, scratch, and scrub. It turns out these words evolved from early ancestral roots meaning “cut, scratch, tear.” And they’re cousins of words associated with writing:

script — something written; a text version of spoken words 

scribe — a person whose job is to write or copy documents

scribble — to write or draw something quickly or carelessly

Since writing has traditionally meant scratching a surface in some way to make language-relevant marks, the connection with cutting/scraping makes sense! Sure enough, those ancestral “cut, scratch, tear” roots evolved into Greek and Latin words meaning “write, carve marks, sketch.” 

Here are more “scr-” words related to writing, scratching, or scratching-movement:

scrawl — to write something roughly or carelessly

scramble — to stir quickly, mix together randomly; originally a variation of scrabble

scrabble — to scratch or scrape at, grab at, grope for, try to hold on to, struggle; (earlier meanings included “scrawl, scribble”; 16th-century compound scribble-scrabble meaning “hasty writing” led to the name of the popular modern word-formation game Scrabble)

Additional “scr-” words developed from the “cut/pierce, cut off/divide” meanings of those ancient roots:

scrap — fragment, piece, scraping (something cut or scraped off)

screen — panel that divides a space, shields/protects from (i.e., cuts off) wind, fire, insects, etc., or displays information

screw — pin engraved with continuous threading groove in a helix pattern that pierces, fastens, holds tightly 

The name of the infamous character Scrooge in Charles Dickens’s story “A Christmas Carol” evokes the sound and meaning of screw: for most of his life, Mr. Scrooge was tightfisted (extremely withholding: stingy with money), held tightly to his savings, and put the screws on his employees and associates (forced or threatened them to do what he wanted). 

Scrooge’s name may have been inspired by the word itself: in 18th-century English, scrooge meant “push, jostle,” according to Etymonline (see source note below), and is likely related to scrounge, which still means “try to get things stealthily, or at the expense or through the generosity of others; forage for, rummage for.”  

A few final very common and useful “scr-” words to consider:

scrutiny — close, careful, critical examination; incisive observation (i.e., cutting/piercing to the essence or truth), based on a Latin root meaning “to examine, investigate, search,” which derived from an ancestral root meaning “to cut; cutting tool.”

scream — loud, piercing cry, often high-pitched

screech — harsh-sounding scream

Screams and screeches cut through the air and seem to pierce our eardrums, so they have that “scr-cutting/piercing word-texture. These last two words developed from similar words in early northern European languages, all of which likely evolved from a much older ancestral root with the same meaning.

* * * * *

SOURCES: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “*sker-,” “*skribh-,” “scream,” “scramble,” “scrabble,” “Scrooge,” “scrounge,” “scrutiny,” and related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “scream,” “*(s)ker-,” “*(s)kreybʰ-,” and related entries); Google dictionary (google.com: “scrabble,” “screw,” “scrounge,” “scream,” “screech,” and related entries); Etymologeek (etymologeek.com: “*skrīhaną”).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on August 5, 2021.

Pandemic Ending

July 26, 2021

Rosing Up Again! by Lloyd Bishop

In recent posts, we discussed two ancient Greek roots of the word “pandemic”: “pan-” (“all, every, entire”), and “demos” (“people”). Now let’s examine the “-icending of “pandemic” … and in that spirit, here’s to completely ending the Covid pandemic!

The suffix “-ic” comes from Greek “ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to, related to.”  

Even though its roots are ancient, “pandemic” is relatively recent, inspired by an earlier word: “epidemic,” from Greek “epi” (“among, upon”) and “demos” (“people”). An “epidemic disease” spreads quickly and widely “among people,” but a “pandemic disease” is much broader, affecting an entire country or even the world, as we all know too well. These words started as adjectives, and later became common as nouns.

According to Etymonline (see source note below), several hundred years ago, English nouns for many subjects of study ended in “-ic”: “arithmetic, logic, magic, music, rhetoric.” Words for academic subjects that emerged later often ended in “-ics” (inspired by the original Greek “ikos”), like “mathematics, linguistics, economics, politics,” and “academics” itself.  

Interestingly, the earlier “-ic” subjects continue mostly as non-count nouns (no plural form), while the later “-ics” subjects tend to be either non-count or plural. For example:

  • Logic is a useful tool (non-count) — not “logics” 
  • Politics is a hot topic (non-count) — not “my politic”
  • My politics are different from yours (plural) — but not countable with numbers: not “two politics”

Such “-ics” subjects often have “-ic” adjective forms:

— athletics (N), athletic (ADJ)

— aerobics (N), aerobic (ADJ)

— genetics (N), genetic (ADJ)

— robotics (N), robotic (ADJ)

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Other “-ic” words more likely to countable may act as both nouns (with final “s” for plurals) and adjectives:

— an epic (N), many epics, an epic (ADJ) journey 

— a romantic (person-N), a couple of romantics, a romantic (ADJ) comedy  

— a plastic (N), various plastics, a plastic (ADJ) toy

— an acrylic (N), several acrylics, acrylic (ADJ) paint

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Some “-ic” words are adjectives only, not nouns, like: 

— energetic 

— manic 

— tragic 

— toxic 

— sonic 

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Do you know these words’ noun forms? Test yourself by filling in the missing letters below:

— energ_  

— mani_  

— trag_ _ _  

— toxi_  

— so_ _ _  

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

Occasionally, an “-ic” word works well as a noun or a verb

— panic (recall the Greek god Pan’s glee in spreading needless fear!)

— picnic

— traffic

— mimic

— frolic

= = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = = =

When used in “-ed” or “-ing” forms, “-ic” verbs add a “k” to avoid being pronounced like “ice” (as in “iced tea” or “icing on a cake”): “panicked, picnicking, trafficked, mimicking, frolicked.” 

But wait — some “-ic” endings in this last group do NOT come from our Greek root. Take a look at the etymology of “picnic,” “traffic,” and “frolic” (think fun!) on your own.

SOURCE for information in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pandemic,” “epidemic,” “-ic,” “-ics,” “picnic,” “traffic,” “mimic,” “frolic” and related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 23, 2021.

In a recent post, we explored the Greek root “pan-” that begins the word “pandemic.”  Now let’s look at the second root in that word, also from ancient Greek: “demos,” meaning “ordinary citizens, common people.”

Demos” appears as “dem” or “demo” in key English words like “democracy,” whose suffix “-cracy” is from Greek “kratos, -kratia,” meaning “rule, strength, power, authority.”  Several important words end in “-cracy” (meaning “power structure, government by”) and the related “-crat” (“person holding that power or participating in that system”).

As you can see, “democracy” means “people power.”  President Abraham Lincoln aptly expressed it as “government of the people, by the people, for the people” in an eloquent speech he made in 1863, known as the Gettysburg Address.

Look up the roots of the “-cracy”/“-crat” words below — this will reinforce your comprehension & long-term memory of them:

aristocracy / aristocrat

autocracy / autocrat

bureaucracy / bureaucrat

meritocracy / (“-crat” form is not common … yet!)

plutocracy / plutocrat

technocracy / technocrat

Another word featuring “dem/demo” is “demography,” whose suffix comes from Greek “-graphia,” meaning “description of.”  So “demography” means “description of the people [in a particular place].”  In English, we often use the form “demographics,” which are statistics of measurable aspects of a population, like age, marital status, income & education levels.

By the way, “-graphia” comes from the Greek verb “grapho,” meaning “write, draw, scratch.”  Inherent in writing/drawing is the idea of recording information, so the English suffixes “-graph,” “-graphy” & “-graphic” express some aspect of recording or describing.  Think about that when you see words like “photograph” (“photo” is from a Greek noun meaning “light”) and “geography” (“geo” refers to “world, land”; also from ancient Greek).

“Graph” and “graphic” are not only suffixes; they stand alone as individual words in English, as you probably know from developing visual aids for presentations at work or in school!

Now take “dem” and add the Greek “agogos,” meaning “leader,” and you get “demagogue.”  A leader of the people? Yes … but in this case, “a leader of the mob”: a political manipulator who exploits people’s “prejudices, wishes, ignorance, and passions,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

The word “demon,” meaning “supernatural spirit, evil spirit,” also comes from ancient Greek, but from a different root (“daimon,” not “demos”).  English author John Milton combined “demon” with the prefix “pan-” (discussed in our recent post) to create the word “pandemonium.”  Interestingly, the pre-Greek heritage of “daimon” & “demos” is closely related.

Another word unrelated to “demos” is “demonstrate” — it’s from Latin, not Greek, and it’s a cousin of the word “monster”!  If you’re interested, research the etymologies of “demon,” “pandemonium” & “demonstrate” on your own.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “dēmotic,” “-cracy,” “-graphy,” “demagogue,” “pandemonium,” “photo-,” “geo,” “demonstrate” & related entries); English Wiktionary (en.wiktionary.org: “dēmos,” “demon,” “-graphy” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Gettysburg Address” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 15, 2021.

With the Covid pandemic beginning to subside, we can breathe a little easier & wonder about things like: What does “pandemic” mean, anyway?

Many English words have their roots in ancient Greek and Latin.  “Pandemic” consists of three Greek word-parts:

pan,” meaning “all,” “every,” “entire”  

demos” (reduced form “dem”), meaning “people

ikos” (Latin form “icus”; early English form “ick” or “ik”), meaning “pertaining to

As you can see from these roots, the original sense of “pandemic” is something “affecting all people.”  As the word developed, it became associated with diseases spreading across entire populations.  

If you can recognize roots in new vocabulary words you’re hearing or reading, you’ll be able to guess their meanings and remember them longer.  Hundreds of English words include one of these three Greek roots: “pan”, “dem,” and “ic” (modern English form of “ikos”).  

Let’s talk more about “pan” today, and the other two roots of “pandemic” in follow-up posts.

The “all” meaning of “pan” arises when “pan” is a prefix: a word-part appearing at the beginning of words.  Sometimes this prefix is attached with a hyphen, as in “pan-American” or “pan-African.”  In these cases, “pan-” means “affecting all parts of,” “across all of,” or “relating to all people described as.” 

Other words with the prefix “pan” do not feature a hyphen.  Can you guess the meanings of the words below?

panacea (“acea” comes from Greek “akos, akeia,” meaning “cure”)

panorama (“orama” comes from Greek “horama,” meaning “sight, spectacle,” and Greek verb “horan,” meaning “to look, to see”)

pantheon (“theon” comes from Greek “theios,” meaning “of/for the gods,” and “theos,” meaning “god”)

Another cultural & linguistic legacy from ancient Greek is “Pan” (with a capital “P”): a god imagined with a man’s upper body, a goat’s lower parts, and goat-horns on his head!  Embodying nature, Pan was the god of shepherds & herd animals, forests & fields, wild places & rustic music, and was associated with sex, fertility & spring.

“Pan” appears in the word “panic,” originally meaning “pertaining to Pan.”  The ancient Greeks believed Pan made “mysterious sounds that caused contagious, groundless fear in herds and crowds, or in people in lonely spots,” according to Etymonline (see source note below).

Other ancient languages produced “pan” meanings unrelated to Greek (or with complex or less direct connections to Greek), which appear in nouns like “pan” (as in “frying pan,” “pancake”), “panda,” “panache,” and several meanings of the verb “to pan.”  If you’re interested, research the histories of those words on your own!  The etymological notes (very brief word histories) at the end of a dictionary definition can help you learn & remember new vocabulary; etymology is the study of the origins & evolving meanings of words.

SOURCES for information included in this post: Etymonline, the Online Etymology Dictionary (etymonline.com: “pan,” “dēmos,” “ikos” & related entries); English Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org: “Pan (god)” & related entries).


A version of this article appeared as a post on NYU’s English Language Institute blog on July 8, 2021.

Vine Improvising Its Way Across a Wall, by Lloyd Bishop

Are you looking for ways to enhance the quality of your communication with others? 

Try validating, affirming, and building on what your conversation partners say, or “offer.”

In improvisational acting (“improv,” for short), this has become a core principle: it’s called “Yes, and” because it’s as simple as saying “Yes” … that is, affirming that what was just offered was valid … and then saying “and …” + adding to what was said or offered — that is, building on the offer.

For example, let’s say you and I start chatting — in real life or in an improvised role-play scenario:

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Yes, it is — and I wish I were somewhere way up north.”

You: “Yeah, me too; I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!”

Me: “Vermont sounds good; I hear it’s really pretty up there …”

Smooth!  You offered “really hot,” and I replied, “Yes, and …” and then you responded “Yeah + Vermont …” and then I said “sounds good + really pretty …” — we used various words as “Yes, and” substitutes.  Simple and natural, right?  But it’s not always easy to do this in actual conversations!  (More on that in a moment.)

In improv, “Yes, and” is lesson #1!

English language learners can boost their confidence, creativity, and fluency with improv exercises & role-plays.  Improvisation means making things happen or solving problems spontaneously, on the spot, without advance planning.  Engaging in improv — even very briefly — can help *YOU* handle unexpected situations, workplace conversations, and public speaking challenges more effectively. 

In improv scenario role-playing AND in the many real roles you play in life, you can enhance the quality of your interactions by validating & affirming what others offer.  As you probably know, brainstorming — generating fresh ideas in a context where all ideas are welcome, and no ideas are initially rejected — is built on this principle.

Why isn’t this always easy to do?  Well, a full answer to that might require some psychological & sociological insights, but for now, just consider how often we do this: 

You: “Whew!  It’s really hot out today!”

Me: “Do you think so?  Actually, it seems fairly cool to me.”

Oops — sorry!  I immediately denied the validity of your offer, negating your “really hot” with my “fairly cool.”  This can have a chilling effect on our conversation and even deflate your confidence.  My bad!  I should have realized that my “Actually” would lead to trouble.   

In improv scenarios, this trouble is serious: If you said it’s hot, and I said it’s cool, then what is the weather in our scenario?  The  imagined reality we could have built together for an audience (or just ourselves) has been undermined, and will need rescuing … or restarting.

An even more common troublemaker than “Actually” is “but” — often disguised as “Yes, but …”:

You: “I’d like to be in Vermont right about now!” 

Me: “Yes, but Canada’s even better than Vermont.”

Ouch!  My “butcanceled my own “Yes” — and maybe I didn’t consciously mean to deflate your “Vermont,” but subconsciously I did!  Watch out for this subtle conversation spoiler.

Improv & acting exercises offer ways to overcome the impulse to contradict, invalidate, negate, and deflate each other’s contributions to conversations & situations.  The imagined realities of role-play scenarios help stretch our sense of self and appreciation of other selves, expand our interpersonal comfort range, and enhance the quality of our real-life interactions & relationships!


A version of this article originally appeared as a post in NYU’s English Language Institute blog on September 17, 2020.