This post comes from my experience of adding more than 8,000 words and phrases to my vocabulary in a way that I can actually use them on the fly in my speech and writing. Some words, especially those that I haven’t used for long time, may elude me, but overall the recall & use works quite well.

That’s why you build vocabulary, right? To use in speech and writing. There are no prizes for building list of words you can’t use. (The ultimate goal of vocabulary-building is to use words in verbal communication where you’ve to come up with an appropriate word in split second. It’s not to say that it’s easy to come up with words while writing, but in writing you can at least afford to think.)

This post also adopts couple of best practices such as

  • Spaced repetition,
  • Deliberate Practice,
  • Begin with end in mind, and
  • Build on what you already know

In this post, you’ll learn how you too can build such vocabulary, the one you can actually use. However, be warned. It’s not easy. It requires consistent work. But the rewards are more than worth the squeeze.

Since building such vocabulary is one of the most challenging aspects of English Language, you’ll stand out in crowd when you use precise words and, the best part, you can use this sub-skill till you’re in this world, long after you retire professionally. (Doesn’t this sound so much better when weighed against today’s reality where most professional skills get outdated in just few years?)

You may have grossly overestimated the size of your vocabulary

Once your understand the difference between active and passive vocabulary, you’ll realize that size of your vocabulary isn’t what you think it to be.

Active vs. Passive vocabulary

Words that you can use in speech and writing constitute your active vocabulary (also called functional vocabulary). You, of course, understand these words while reading and listening as well. Think of words such as eat, sell, drink, see, and cook.

But how about words such as munch, outsmart, salvage, savagery, and skinny? Do you use these words regularly while speaking and writing? Unlikely. Do you understand meaning of these words while reading and listening? Highly likely. Such words constitute your passive vocabulary (also called recognition vocabulary). You can understand these words while reading and listening, but you can’t use them while speaking and writing.

Your active vocabulary is a tiny subset of your passive vocabulary:

(Note: while the proportion of the two inner circles – active and passive vocabulary – bears some resemblance to reality, the outer rectangle is not proportionate because of paucity of space. In reality, the outer rectangle is much bigger, representing hundreds of thousands of words.)

Many mistakenly believe that they’ve strong vocabulary because they can understand most words when reading and listening. But the real magic, the real use of vocabulary is when you use words in speech and writing. If you evaluate your vocabulary against this yardstick – active vs. passive – your confidence in your vocabulary will be shaken.

Why build vocabulary – a small exercise?

You would be all too aware of cases where people frequently pause while speaking because they can’t think of words for what they want to say. We can easily spot such extreme cases.

What we fail to spot, however, are less extreme, far more common cases where people don’t pause, but they use imprecise words and long-winding explanations to drive their message.

Example 1:

The bridge was destroyed (or broken) by the flooded river.

Vs.

The bridge was washed away by the flooded river.

Although both convey the message, the second sentence stands out because of use of precise phrase.

Example 2:

What word(s) best describe what’s happening in the picture below?

Image source

‘Dropped’

Not the best response.

A better word is ‘emptied’. Even ‘dumped’ is great.

A crisp description of the above action would be: “The dumper emptied (or dumped) the stones on the roadside.”

Example 3:

What about this?

Image source

‘Took out grapes’.

No.

‘Plucked grapes’ is far better.

If you notice, these words – wash away, empty, dump, and pluck – are simple. We can easily understand them while reading and listening, but rarely use them (with the possible exception of empty) in speech or writing. Remember, active vs. passive vocabulary?

If you use such precise words in your communication you’ll stand out in crowd.

Little wonder, studies point to a correlation between strength of vocabulary and professional success. Earl Nightingale, a renowned self-help expert and author, in his 20-year study of college graduates found:

Without a single exception, those who had scored highest on the vocabulary test given in college, were in the top income group, while those who had scored the lowest were in the bottom income group.

He also refers to a study by Johnson O’Connor, an American educator and researcher, who gave vocabulary tests to executive and supervisory personnel in 39 large manufacturing companies. According to this study:

Presidents and vice presidents averaged 236 out of a possible 272 points; managers averaged 168; superintendents, 140; foremen, 114; floor bosses, 86. In virtually every case, vocabulary correlated with executive level and income.

Though there are plenty of studies linking professional success with fluency in English overall, I haven’t come across any study linking professional success with any individual component – grammar and pronunciation, for example – of English language other than vocabulary.

You can make professional success a motivation to improve your active vocabulary.

Let’s dive into the tactics now.

How to build vocabulary you can use in speech and writing?

(In the spirit of the topic of this section, I’ve highlighted words that I’ve shifted from my passive to active vocabulary in red font. I’ve done this for only this section, lest the red font become too distracting.)

Almost all of us build vocabulary through the following two-step process:

Step 1: We come across new words while reading and listening. Meanings of many of these words get registered in our brains – sometimes vaguely, sometimes precisely – through the context in which we see these words. John Rupert Firth, a leading figure in British linguistics during the 1950s, rightly said, “You shall know a word by the company it keeps.”

Many of these words then figure repeatedly in our reading and listening and gradually, as if by osmosis, they start taking roots in our passive vocabulary.

Step 2: We start using some of these words in our speech and writing. (They are, as discussed earlier, just a small fraction of our passive vocabulary.) By and large, we stay in our comfort zones, making do with this limited set of words.

Little wonder, we add to our vocabulary in trickle. In his book Word Power Made Easy, Norman Lewis laments the tortoise-like rate of vocabulary-building among adults:

Educational testing indicates that children of ten who have grown up in families in which English is the native language have recognition [passive] vocabularies of over twenty thousand words.

And that these same ten-year-olds have been learning new words at a rate of many hundreds a year since the age of four.

In astonishing contrast, studies show that adults who are no longer attending school increase their vocabularies at a pace slower than twenty-five to fifty words annually.

Adults improve passive vocabulary at an astonishingly meagre rate of 25-50 words a year. The chain to acquire active vocabulary is getting broken at the first step itself – failure to read or listen enough (see Step 1 we just covered). Most are not even reaching the second step, which is far tougher than the first. Following statistic from National Spoken English Skills Report by Aspiring Minds (sample of more than 30,000 students from 500+ colleges in India) bears this point:State of vocabulary among college students

Only 33 percent know such simple words! They’re not getting enough inputs.

Such vocabulary-acquisition can be schematically represented as:Limited inputs = Small Active Vocabulary

The problem here is at both the steps of vocabulary acquisition:

  • Not enough inputs (represented by funnel filled only little) and
  • Not enough exploration and use of words to convert inputs into active vocabulary (represented by few drops coming out of the funnel)

Here is what you can do to dramatically improve your active vocabulary:

1. Get more inputs (reading and listening)

That’s a no-brainer. The more you read,

  • the more new words you come across and
  • the more earlier-seen words get reinforced