The average American has a vocabulary of 10,000 words, more heavily divided in favor of words read versus words spoken. Magazines like Harper’s and Atlantic Monthly assume their reader has a vocabulary of 20,000-25,000 like that of college students. Newspapers write to people with a third grade level of education (and they wonder why they are failing). One thousand words make up 80% of words used in common speaking and in writing American English. The other 20% differ widely depending upon education and vocation. As writers, we should constantly be working on expanding our vocabulary. I intend to, really intend to work on it, daily, starting tomorrow, unless I am writing in which case I cannot take time to increase my vocabulary. Or can I afford not to?
There are many exercises to increase our average recall vocabulary and vocabulary recognition in a context. Studying the dictionary is the least effective and reading is the most effective approach. Read all genres at all levels. Sit with a dictionary, notebook and pen beside you. Circle the words in the dictionary that you have to look up. Write them in your notebook. When you look up more words, your eye will catch the circled or highlighted word which reinforces its meaning and you will have a greater chance of using it later.
Get in the habit of using your dictionary and thesaurus together when you study. Buy a good dictionary and not a pocket version. Invest in one that will help you understand the phonetic spelling versus one of those that prints an “e” upside down followed by some gibberish with accent marks. Buy a word-a-day calendar and put it where you will use it every day for instance beside the bathroom sink, coffee pot or your favorite chair. Build a list of new words that you review 15 minutes a day. Familiarity with a word aids in being able to recall it more easily when writing or speaking. Make three sentences in your notebook using the word in various contexts or tenses.
Playing games like Hangman and Scrabble, work crossword puzzles or find-a-word puzzles are fun ways to broaden your stock of words. Subscribe to a “word-of-the-day” delivered to your computer inbox or iPhone where a word, its pronunciation, definition and origin are displayed. I use Merriam Webster’s Word of the Day. Sometimes they email obscure words that only writers of medieval novels about outer Siberia would use but the word origin is always interesting.
Additional ways to increase your vocabulary are to study the roots of words, which are mostly from Latin and Greek, and understand prefixes and suffixes. Develop lists of synonyms and antonyms from your new words list in your notebook. Try your hand at the “Word Power” section of Reader’s Digest magazine; go to the library and peruse old copies. Play games on the computer that are word puzzles. Use these new words in your writing.
Two fun books are Random House Webster’s Word Menu by Stephen Glazier and The Bibliophile’s Dictionary: 2,054 Masterful Words and Phrases by Miles Westley. The former is part thesaurus, part dictionary, part glossary, part vocabulary builder, part logophile’s phrases, part easy browsing and wholly delightful. The Bibliophile’s Dictionary includes atypical but not obscure words with definitions categorized by subject that you might use to enliven your writing.