Word (Dis)Association Activity (Post 30)

This activity can be used either as a challenging game or, more seriously, to try to find out more about the person you’re talking to.

We all associate different things in our minds. So, for example, snow might, for you, conjure up images of cold, wet, darkness, hunger and other unpleasant things. For me, however, snow suggests whiteness, crisp cold air, sparkling sunlight, blue skies and Christmas. These associations are called the connotations of the word. A word’s connotations are not its literal meaning (which is its definition) but its associations.

Connotations can be different from person to person, therefore. Some words are generally agreed to have similar connotations for most English speakers, however. For example, jolly, fatherly and homely are all thought to have positive connotations for most people. Cold, tight and ghost are all thought to have negative connotations for most people.

You can see that this is far from being universal. Each of the six words above could easily have completely different connotations for some people.

However, this game – or activity – allows you to have your own associations.

If you are using it as a game, you need to be prepared to defend your associations.

You can either be reasonable with one another and make your own judgments, or you can appoint a third person as judge (or arbiter).

Version 1: Speaker A mentions a word, and within a reasonable space of time Speaker B has to respond with a word associated with it. Versions of Speaker A’s word are not allowed. So, for example, if A says snow, B may not say snowing or snowfall. (S)He may say cold, or Christmas, or wet, or any number of things . . . but if B says, for example, hippopotamus, A may well challenge him/her.

Then, it is up to B to defend him/herself by explaining why hippopotamus is associated with snow. If B fails to explain this convincingly, A gains a point and comes up with another word for B to respond to. If a reasonable explanation is forthcoming, the game continues: A has to come up with a word which is associated with hippopotamus.

A might say river or water or horse. If, however, A says cloud, B might reasonably challenge this. A must defend his/her choice of cloud; if he/he is successful (coming up with a convincing explanation), the game continues, with B responding to cloud. If A fails to defend the choice, however, B gains a point and comes up with another word for A to respond to.

As you get better at this, try to make the time-limit for each response shorter.

Version 2: as above, except this time the challenge is to respond with a word which has nothing at all to do with the previous word! This is much more difficult than Version 1! Challenges are more frequent, and they can also be ingenious and funny. If you want to hear comedians tackle this, try to listen to some broadcasts of the Radio 4 programme I’m Sorry, I Haven’t A Clue.

Version 3: this isn’t a game. It’s a way of finding out about your partner/friend. Played with great trust and honesty, it can reveal a great deal about a person and his/her past. It might be something to save for someone close to you, therefore. Simply, you ask the other person, “What comes to mind for you when you hear the word [and then you choose a word]?” Suggested words: friend; happiness; fear; hope; comfort; love; funny; childhood; home.

You can take turns asking each other about the connotations of a particular word, or you can just use the exercise as part of a normal getting-to-know-you-better conversation.

Why play (these) word-games? (Idea 29)

Children learn through play. We sometimes forget this as we grow older, and think that anything that’s going to do us good on the learning front has to be serious work. It doesn’t. Older people can learn through playing games, just as children do.

Playing word games is good for your vocabulary – that is, the number of words you know. In turn, a wide vocabulary is useful for writing and talking, so that you can make yourself more clearly understood (or so that you can confuse people, if that’s what you want to do !). Knowledge of a range of words (that is, a wide vocabulary) is also useful in reading and listening, because it increases the chances of understanding what you’re taking in.

By playing word games, you learn to listen more closely and also to express yourself more clearly. You become more creative or inventive in the way you use language.

Word exchanges can also be used, more seriously, to find out about people.

And sometimes, word games can be mischievously good fun!

The Questions Game

You may already know this one. You can start it with someone else at any time, even without their realising you’re doing so. The idea is that you should have a conversation in which you only ever respond in questions. The first person to respond with a statement (rather than a question) loses, and the other person gains a point.

So, you might be asked, “What do you want to do today?” You might reply, “Do I have a choice?” If the other person doesn’t realise you’ve begun the game, (s)e might reply, “Yes. You could …”: too late! You’ve scored a point.

Once the other person realises that the game is on, it becomes more and more difficult to produce a reasonable response in question form in a reasonable amount of time. You might want to put an official time limit on how long there is to reply, but generally people sense what’s a fair amount of time and what isn’t.

“So, do you want to play?”

“Why not?”

“Are you uncertain?”

“Are you?”

“About what?”

“What did you say?”


“Just now …. AAARGH!”

For interest: there is a very well played example of this game in the film (and stage play) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead by Tom Stoppard.

Next time: Word Association (and Disassociation) Games.

Another Word Game (Activity 20)

I hope you’re enjoying playing Just a Minute (Post Number 12). Today’s game requires a little more preparation but the preparation itself is easier. You need teams of two; if there are only two of you, you can play together, but it’s more competitive if two-person teams compete against one another.

This is a communication game: it tests how well the speaker can describe the word on the card, and how well the listener can pick up the clues that the speaker is giving to him or her.

The more people you have playing, or the longer you want to play, the more words you have to have prepared in advance.

Get some paper and cut it into strips (15cm by 6cm is a minimum size) or if you have access to card, use or make cards of about that size.

Take a marker pen (a pen with a very thick nib) and write clearly on only one side of each strip or card.

Write one word on each. The words can be as easy or as difficult as you choose – but as with subjects for Just a Minute, remember that you may well have to guess the difficult ones yourself!

If you can manage 100 different words as a minimum, that allows you a good stretch of playing time (see below for ideas to get you started). If you can manage 200 or 300, all the better! And if you want to return to playing this game, of course people will forget the words they saw the first time, and/or there will be new players, so your pack of cards or strips can be used many times over.

The rules are simple. The speaker sits with the cards in front of him, with a shield between the cards and the listener – perhaps a cereal box, or a pile of books. A timer is set for one minute (or two minutes, if you prefer). If you have a third person as a time-keeper, that can help.

The speaker has to help the listener to guess correctly the exact word on the card in front of her/him, without using the word, or part of it, directly him/herself.

For example, if the word is HAPPY, the speaker mustn’t use (or spell out) HAPPY, HAPPINESS, HAPPIER, UNHAPPY and so on.

The speaker starts with the word on the top card/strip on his/her pile and is not allowed to move on to the next one until the word has been correctly guessed by the listener.

When a word has been correctly guessed, its card is put on a separate pile. When the time is up, the number of correctly guessed words is noted as that person or team’s score. If there are only two of you, whether you count the score as the speaker’s or the listener’s is up to you! That’s the important thing about communication: it requires both a good speaker and a good listener to be successful!

In the next round, the listener and the speaker change roles.

Don’t just put the used word-cards back to the bottom of the pile. Keep them until the game is over and then shuffle them around for the next time.

Suggestions for words to get you started: cat; dog; house; sky; clouds; planet; universe; stars; food; water; clothes; vegetables; lemon; purple; uncomfortable; wet; newspaper; sadly; song; theatre; poem; bowl; tennis; partnership; business; will; crash; books; music; terminus; forcefully; weak; curtain; rushing; trip; velvet; muddy; deep; theoretical; triangle; substance; incredible; diver; oxygen; trumpet; shellfish; quilt; see-saw; carpet; shoes (50).

Stealthily; fog; needle; jumping; twinkle; loud; forgetful; waterfall; puddle; tiger; horrible; dizzy; opera; baseball; over; virus; thermometer; electricity; waist; slippers; category; final; opening; across; island; remarkably; volunteer; pencil; yellow; flipper; magazine; tentacle; hypothetical; professor; writing; kick; dry; fold; pathway; mist; laptop; sunshine; dirty; propose; upset; quotation; keypad; remote; chair; shadow; porcupine (another 50).

Eye tolled ewe sew – Homophones (Post 19)

Homophones are words which sound the same but are spelled differently – I/eye; told/tolled; you/ewe; so/sew. There are many in the English language.

Eye-rhyme is when this happens the other way around: words look as if they should rhyme, but they’re actually pronounced differently – rough, through, although, cough. The language is well supplied with traps for the unwary!

If you were brought up from your childhood to speak (and read and write) English, you are fortunate: you will have learned to avoid most of these traps almost as a matter of course.

Even native speakers can struggle at times, though. See how you get on with this ditty (a ditty is a short poem that rhymes very obviously and has a very distinct and simple rhythm), reading it for understanding. Read it aloud (it’s allowed …) if you want to make that easier!

Spell Chequer

Eye have a grate spell chequer:

It came with my pea sea.

It plainly marques four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

Eye strike a quay and type a word,

And weight for it to say

Weather eye am wrong oar write;

It shows me strait a-weigh.

Whenever a mist ache is maid,

It nose bee four two long;

And eye can put the error rite.

It’s rare lea ever wrong.

Eye ran this poem threw it and

I’m shore your pleased two no

It’s letter perfect awl the weigh:

My chequer tolled me sew.

Puns (Activity 18)

Ben Battle was a soldier bold,

And used to war’s alarms:

A cannon-ball took off his legs,

So he laid down his arms!

This is the first verse of a rather silly poem which has a pun in almost every stanza (stanza is another word for verse, although stanzas don’t have to rhyme, whereas verse usually does).

Puns are plays on words. They usually depend on words having more than one meaning, or words which sound alike.

In the verse above, the pun is on arms. Arms – like legs – are limbs on the human body; but arms can also refer to weapons, such as the rifles that infantry soldiers use. (Infantry soldiers fought on foot originally, rather than on horseback; you’ll need to know this to appreciate another pun, later!)

A punster – a rather derogatory [insulting] term for someone who makes puns – might describe the unfortunate Ben Battle as ‘armless – making a pun on the fact that he has laid down his weapons and so can’t do any damage: he’s [h]armless. This is the second type of pun.

Puns can be “awful” – very contrived and possibly in bad taste! Most people appreciate them, however, even if they don’t want to hear them used too often.

The poem I’ve quoted, which is called Faithless Nelly Gray and was written by Thomas Hood, goes on to tell how army surgeons made Ben some wooden legs. When he goes to see his girlfriend, however, she dislikes them and says that he’s not the man she fell in love with – a handsome soldier in his (red) uniform. Ben suspects, though, that she has actually taken up with another man while he has been away in the wars. Distraught with grief, he takes his own life – but even this sad ending does not stop Thomas Hood filling his verses with puns!

I won’t reproduce the whole poem here, but see if you can explain the puns in each of the following stanzas:

Verse 2:

Now as they bore him off the field,

Said he, “Let others shoot,

For here I leave my second leg,

And the Forty-second Foot!”

Verse 3:

The army-surgeons made him limbs:

Said he, “They’re only pegs:

But there’s as wooden members quite,

As represent my legs!”

Verse 6:

“O Nelly Gray! O Nelly Gray!

Is this your love so warm?

The love that loves a scarlet coat

Should be more uniform!”

Verse 11:

“O false and fickle Nelly Gray!

I know why you refuse:

Though I’ve no feet – some other man

Is standing in my shoes!

“Just a Minute” (Post 12)

This game, which has been popular for more than 50 years, will test your ability to talk fluently and imaginatively. The more you play it, the better you’ll get.

Although you can practise it on your own, Just a Minute is best when played with at least three people – two competitors and a judge/timekeeper.

The aim of each round is for the competitor to talk about the subject (s)he is given, for 60 seconds, without hesitation, deviation or repetition. (More on each of these, below.) The other competitor(s) should challenge the speaker when they think they detect hesitation, or deviation, or repetition.

When a challenge is made, the timer is stopped. If the judge allows the challenge (thinks it is correct), the timer is started again and the person who made the challenge gets to speak on the same subject for the rest of the minute. Of course (s)he is open to the same procedure if the others think they have heard repetition, deviation or hesitation.

Points. Anyone who makes a correct challenge is awarded one point. If a speaker is wrongly challenged (in the opinion of the judge), (s)he gets to keep talking on the subject and is awarded a point. Whoever is speaking when the 60 seconds is up (and the timekeeper should blow a whistle, or say “Stop”, at that point) also gets a point.

Whenever you decide to stop playing, the person with the most points is the winner! You might want to ask the judge/timekeeper to keep a note of each player’s points, too. Speakers need to focus all their attention on speaking about their subject without repetition, hesitation or deviation.

Repetition: basically, this means using the exact same word more than once in your 60 seconds. Little, often-used words such as “and”, “a”, “the”, “I” and so on are usually allowed; but if someone wanted to use up time by listing lots of things with “and” in between each one, that would probably be ruled as unacceptable repetition. Using a word once in the singular – e.g. “house” – and then once in the plural – “houses” – is not repetition, and often catches challengers out. (Remember you get an extra point if you are the speaker and are challenged incorrectly!)

Hesitation: this one is quite straightforward. You aren’t allowed to pause for any significant length of time during your 60 seconds, nor are you allowed to use “fillers” such as “um”, “err”, “hmm” or to garble your words (that is, getting tongue-tied and coming out with nonsense word such as “sarple” for “sample” or “prossibly”, a cross between “possibly” and “probably”). This rule doesn’t mean that you have to run all your sentences together and speak until you run out of breath; it just means that you have to speak at a reasonably normal pace and not allow anyone to detect pauses or hesitations.

Deviation: this means straying from the subject you’ve been given. You must stick to the subject on the card (see below for subjects on cards), but what you say about it is entirely up to you. You can be as widely imaginative as you like; you can make things up if they are believable (If they’re not believable you might be challenged for “deviation from the truth”!).

Subjects: although these can be absolutely anything, it is best to start with straightforward subjects, especially when you are practising. To get into the way of the game, choose a subject that you know quite a lot about; that’ll give you confidence as you work up towards talking on a subject given to you by someone else. (You could record yourself, for practice, and then spot your own hesitations, deviations and repetitions when you listen back to the recording.)

Write each subject on a separated piece of card or paper, then give them to the judge/timekeeper who will read out one subject for each speaker at the beginning of his or her round. The judge can make up the subjects him/herself, or you can all write down subjects and hand them to him/her. Subjects can be simple, such as “What I did yesterday” or “My favourite meal” or “Music”; more complicated, such as “How to win an argument” or “What not to do on holiday” or “Money”; or rather abstract, such as popular sayings: “A stitch in time saves nine” or “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence” or “Well I never”.


If you have enough people to have a judge, try to choose someone whose judgment you all respect!

If you write down difficult subjects, be prepared to be asked to speak on them yourself!

Challenging someone just before the 60 seconds is up (if you can sense when that is) can be particularly effective, as you’ll get a point if your challenge is correct, and only have to speak for a few seconds on the subject before getting another point for speaking as the whistle blows for “time’s up!”

Don’t speak too quickly – that is, gabble – although if you’re nervous that’s likely to happen. The faster you speak, the more you’ll have to think of to say! Just speak in a reasonable, even rather thoughtful, way; it will take longer and also give you more time to think of what to say next.

If this really takes off in your home, perhaps you could start a family league, with a prize for the overall winner at the end of each week!

Communication: It Takes Two (Suggestion 7)

Probably the most important thing we do in life, communication takes place in many different ways. Music, painting, sculpture, mime, facial expressions and our behaviour are all ways of communicating. For most of us, however, WORDS are the way in which we’ll communicate most often.

Talking/Speaking and Writing are ways of giving out information. Listening and Reading are ways of taking in information.

For communication to be successful, what is taken in by the listener or reader should be the same as what was sent out by the talker/speaker or writer. Often, however, this is not the case. For communication to be effective, both the transmitter (the talker, speaker or writer) and the receiver (the listener or reader) need to be working properly.

Sometimes you might be criticised for not expressing yourself clearly. This happens to people at all stages in their lives, from early days right through to when they are leaders of their organisations, or even of their countries. It might be justified criticism; I’ve mentioned before the importance of speaking English so that it can be understood as widely as possible. But sometimes the criticism is undeserved, and it is actually the listener or reader who needs to work harder to understand the message that’s being sent.

If you want your message to be clearly understood, try to put yourself in the position of the person who’s going to hear or read it. Then put it in words that they will understand. Try to make references to things that they are familiar with. It’s no good trying to explain what a piebald horse is like, for example, to someone who has never seen a horse, unless you make some reference to things that they HAVE seen – a cow, perhaps, or a dog or a fox.

Here’s a game to try with your communications partner. (Hint: It’s easier if you use squared paper. If you have a printer you can search online for “squared paper to print” and create your own; alternatively, most large supermarkets sell exercise books with squared paper.)

Each person takes a sheet of paper and a pencil.

The transmitter – the person who is going to send the message – starts by drawing something on his/her piece of paper, without letting the receiver – the person who is going to try to understand the message – see him/her doing it.

They sit where they cannot see each other’s piece of paper, and allow the receiver to rest his/her paper on a surface which makes drawing easy.

The aim of the task is that the receiver should end up with the same drawing on his/her sheet of paper as the transmitter has drawn originally. The only way to get that done is for the transmitter to tell the receiver what to do. Only words are allowed, and no gestures or – of course – looking at the other person’s piece of paper.

It is a better test of your communication skills as a speaker if you don’t allow the person listening to ask you questions.

Hint 2: start with a really easy shape, such as a square or rectangle. Think about where on the page it is drawn, and how large or small it is, and how you are going to convey those details to your partner.

Hint 3: it can be helpful if each of you has a ruler, to help you measure distances and to draw straight lines. The person receiving the instructions might also find an eraser useful, as (s)he sometimes realises from a later instruction that something (s)he drew earlier must be wrong. That’s why you’re doing this in pencil, not in ink.

As you get better and better at this – with practice, you’ll learn how to express yourself more clearly – you can try more complicated shapes, such as curves, and have more than one shape on a page. Explaining where they are in relation to one another is a useful challenge to face!

The evidence of how successful you have been will emerge when you compare the original drawing with the listener’s result. Swap places after one round and try again; it’s important to appreciate just how difficult the task is for both people, not just one of them.

This is mainly an exercise to improve the transmitter’s skills – the speaker’s skills. It makes you think what it is like to be in the receiver’s – the listener’s – situation; and that is always key to successful communication.