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 (Doesn’t this sound so much better when weighed against today’s reality where most professional skills get outdated in just few years?)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:
(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.)
Note: Feel free to use the above and other images in the post, using the link of this post for reference/attribution.
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.
The bridge was destroyed (or broken) by the flooded river.
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.
What word(s) best describe what’s happening in the picture below?
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.”
What about this?
‘Took out grapes’.
‘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:
Only 33 percent know such simple words! They’re not getting enough inputs.
Such vocabulary-acquisition can be schematically represented as:
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
If you’ve to prioritize between reading and listening purely from the perspective of building vocabulary, go for more reading, because it’s easier to read and mark words on paper or screen. Note that listening will be a more helpful input when you’re working on your speaking skills.
So develop the habit to read something 30-60 minutes every day. It has benefits far beyond just vocabulary-building.
If you increase your inputs, your vocabulary-acquisition funnel will look something like:
More inputs but no other steps result in larger active vocabulary.
2. Gather words from your passive vocabulary for deeper exploration
The reading and listening you do, over months and years, increase the size of your passive vocabulary. There are plenty of words, almost inexhaustible, sitting underutilized in your passive vocabulary. Wouldn’t it be awesome if you could move many of them to your active vocabulary? That would be easier too because you don’t have to learn them from scratch. You already understand their meaning and usage, at least to some extent. That’s like plucking – to use the word we’ve already overused – low hanging fruits.
While reading and listening, note down words that you’re already familiar with, but you don’t use them (that is they’re part of your passive vocabulary). We covered few examples of such words earlier in the post – pluck, dump, salvage, munch, etc. If you’re like most, your passive vocabulary is already large, waiting for you to shift some of it to your active vocabulary. You can also note down completely unfamiliar words, but only in exceptional cases.
To put what I said in the previous paragraph in more concrete terms, you may ask following two questions to decide which words to note down for further exploration:
- Do you understand the meaning of the word from the context of your reading or listening?
- Do you use this word while speaking and writing?
If the answer is ‘yes’ to the first question and ‘no’ to the second, you can note down the word.
3. Explore the words in an online dictionary
Time to go a step further than seeing words in context while reading.
You need to explore each word (you’ve noted) further in a dictionary. Know its precise meaning(s). Listen to pronunciation and speak it out loud, first individually and then as part of sentences. (If you’re interested in the topic of pronunciation, refer to the post on pronunciation.) And, equally important, see few sentences where the word has been used.
Preferably, note down the meaning(s) and few example sentences so that you can practice spaced repetition and retain them for long. Those who do not know what spaced repetition is, it is the best way to retain things in your long-term memory. There are number of options these days to note words and other details about them – note-taking apps and good-old word document. I’ve been copying-pasting on word document and taking printouts. For details on how I practiced spaced repetition, refer to my experience of adding more than 8,000 words to my vocabulary.
But why go through the drudgery of noting down – and going through, probably multiple times – example sentences? Why not just construct sentences straight after knowing the meaning of the word?
Blachowicz, Fisher, Ogle, and Watts-Taffe, in their paper, point out the yawning gap between knowing the meaning of words and using them in sentences:
Research suggests that students are able to select correct definitions for unknown words from a dictionary, but they have difficulty then using these words in production tasks such as writing sentences using the new words.
If only it was easy. It’s even more difficult in verbal communication where, unlike in writing, you don’t have the luxury of pausing and recalling appropriate words.
That’s why you need to focus on example sentences.
Majority of those who refer dictionary, however, restrict themselves to meaning of the word. Few bother to check example sentences. But they’re at least as much important as meaning of the word, because they teach you how to use words in sentences, and sentences are the building blocks of speech and writing.
If you regularly explore words in a dictionary, your vocabulary-acquisition funnel will look something like:
More inputs combined with exploration of words result in even larger active vocabulary.
After you absorb the meaning and example sentences of a word, it enters a virtuous cycle of consolidation. The next time you read or listen the word, you’ll take note of it and its use more actively, which will further reinforce it in your memory. In contrast, if you didn’t interact with the word in-depth, it’ll pass unnoticed, like thousands do every day. That’s cascading effect.
4. Use them
To quote Maxwell Nurnberg and Morris Rosenblum from their book All About Words:
In vocabulary building, the problem is not so much finding new words or even finding out what they mean. The problem is to remember them, to fix them permanently in your mind.
For you can see that if you are merely introduced to words, you will forget them as quickly as you forget the names of people you are casually introduced to at a crowded party – unless you meet them again or unless you spend some time with them.
This is the crux. Use it or lose it.
Without using, the words will slowly slip away from your memory.
Without using the words few times, you won’t feel confident using them in situations that matter.
If you use the words you explored in dictionary, your vocabulary-acquisition funnel will look something like:
More inputs combined with exploration of words and use of them result in the largest active vocabulary.
Here is a comparison of the four ways in which people acquire active vocabulary:
The big question though is how to use the words you’re exploring. Here are few exercises to accomplish this most important step in vocabulary-building process.
Vocabulary exercises: how to use words you’re learning
You can practice these vocabulary activities for 10-odd minutes every day, preferably during the time you waste such as commuting or waiting, to shift more and more words you’ve noted down to your active vocabulary. I’ve used these activities extensively, with strong results to boot.
1. Form sentences and speak them out during your reviews
When you review the list of words you’ve compiled, take a word as cue without looking at its meaning and examples, recall its meaning, and, most importantly, speak out 4-5 sentences using the word. It’s nothing but a flashcard in work. If you follow spaced repetition diligently, you’ll go through this process at least few times. I recommend reading my experience of building vocabulary (linked earlier) to know how I did this part.
Why speaking out, though? (If the surroundings don’t permit, it can be whisper as well.)
Speaking out the word as part of few sentences will serve the additional purpose of making your vocal cords accustomed to new words and phrases.
2. Create thematic webs
When reviewing, take a word and think of other words related to that word. Web of words on a particular theme, in short, and hence the name ‘thematic web’. These are five of many, many thematic webs I’ve actually come up in my reviews:
(Note: Name of the theme is in bold. Second, where there are multiple words, I’ve underlined the main word.)
If I come across the word ‘gourmet’ in my review, I’ll also quickly recall all the words related with food: tea strainer, kitchen cabinet, sink, dish cloth, wipe dishes, rinse utensils, immerse beans in water, simmer, steam, gourmet food, sprinkle salt, spread butter, smear butter, sauté, toss vegetables, and garnish the sweet dish
Similarly, for other themes:
Prognosis, recuperate, frail, pass away, resting place, supplemental air, excruciating pain, and salubrious
C. Showing off
Showy, gaudy, extravaganza, over the top, ostentatious, and grandstanding
D. Crowd behavior
Restive, expectant, hysteria, swoon, resounding welcome, rapturous, jeer, and cheer
Deluge, cats and dogs, downpour, cloudburst, heavens opened, started pouring, submerged, embankment, inundate, waterlogged, soaked to the skin, take shelter, run for a cover, torrent, and thunderbolt
(If you notice, words in a particular theme are much wider in sweep than just synonyms.)
It takes me under a minute to complete dozen-odd words in a theme. However, in the beginning, when you’re still adding to your active vocabulary in tons, you’ll struggle to go beyond 2-3 simple words when thinking out such thematic lists. That’s absolutely fine.
Why thematic web, though?
Because that’s how we recall words when speaking or writing. (If you flip through Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis, a popular book on improving vocabulary, you’ll realize that each of its chapters represents a particular idea, something similar to a theme.) Besides, building a web also quickly jogs you through many more words.
3. Describe what you see around
In a commute or other time-waster, look around and speak softly an apt word in a split second for whatever you see. Few examples:
- If you see grass on the roadside, you can say verdant or luxurious.
- If you see a vehicle stopping by the roadside, you can say pull over.
- If you see a vehicle speeding away from other vehicles, you can say pull away.
- If you see a person carrying a load on the road side, you can say lug and pavement.
Key is to come up with these words in a flash. Go for speed, not accuracy. (After all, you’ll have similar reaction time when speaking.) If you can’t think of an appropriate word for what you see instantaneously – and there will be plenty in the beginning – skip it.
This vocabulary exercise also serves an unintended, though important, objective of curbing the tendency to first think in the native language and then translating into English as you speak. This happens because the spontaneity in coming up with words forces you to think directly in English.
Last, this exercise also helps you assess your current level of vocabulary (for spoken English). If you struggle to come up with words for too many things/ situations, you’ve job on your hands.
4. Describe what one person or object is doing
Another vocabulary exercise you can practice during time-wasters is to focus on a single person and describe her/ his actions, as they unfold, for few minutes. An example:
He is skimming Facebook on his phone. OK, he is done with it. Now, he is taking out his earphones. He has plugged them into his phone, and now he is watching some video. He is watching and watching. There is something funny there in that video, which makes him giggle. Simultaneously, he is adjusting the bag slung across his shoulder.
The underlined words are few of the new additions to my active vocabulary I used on the fly when focusing on this person.
Feel free to improvise and modify this process to suit your unique conditions, keeping in mind the fundamentals such as spaced repetition, utilizing the time you waste, and putting what you’re learning to use.
To end this section, I must point out that you need to build habit to perform these exercises for few minutes at certain time(s) of the day. They’re effective when done regularly.
Why I learnt English vocabulary this way?
For few reasons:
1. I worked backwards from the end result to prepare for real-world situations
David H. Freedman learnt Italian using Duolingo, a popular language-learning app, for more than 70 hours in the buildup to his trip to Italy. A week before they were to leave for Rome, his wife put him to test. She asked how would he ask for his way from Rome airport to the downtown. And how would he order in a restaurant?
David failed miserably.
He had become a master of multiple-choice questions in Italian, which had little bearing on the real situations he would face.
We make this mistake all the time. We don’t start from the end goal and work backwards to design our lessons and exercises accordingly. David’s goal wasn’t to pass a vocabulary test. It was to strike conversation socially.
Coming back to the topic of vocabulary, learning meanings and examples of words in significant volume is a challenge. But a much bigger challenge is to recall an apt word in split second while speaking. (That’s the holy grail of any vocabulary-building exercise, and that’s the end goal we want to achieve.)
The exercises I described earlier in the post follow the same path – backwards from the end.
2. I used proven scientific methods to increase effectiveness
Looking at just a word and recalling its meaning and coming up with rapid-fire examples where that word can be used introduced elements of deliberate practice, the fastest way to build neural connection and hence any skill. (See the exercises we covered.) For the uninitiated, deliberate practice is the way top performers in any field practice.
Another proven method I used was spaced repetition.
3. I built on what I already knew to progress faster
Covering mainly passive vocabulary has made sure that I’m building on what I already know, which makes for faster progress.
Don’t ignore these when building vocabulary
Keep in mind following while building vocabulary:
1. Use of fancy words in communication make you look dumb, not smart
Don’t pick fancy words to add to your vocabulary. Use of such words doesn’t make you look smart. It makes your communication incomprehensible and it shows lack of empathy for the listeners. So avoid learning words such as soliloquy and twerking. The more the word is used in common parlance, the better it is.
An example of how fancy words can make a piece of writing bad is this review of movie, which is littered with plenty of fancy words such as caper, overlong, tomfoolery, hectoring, and cockney. For the same reason, Shashi Tharoor’s Word of the Week is not a good idea. Don’t add such words to your vocabulary.
2. Verbs are more important than nouns and adjectives
Verbs describe action, tell us what to do. They’re clearer. Let me explain this through an example.
In his book Start with Why, Simon Sinek articulates why verbs are more effective than nouns:
For values or guiding principles to be truly effective they have to be verbs. It’s not ‘integrity’, it’s ‘always do the right thing’. It’s not ‘innovation’, it’s ‘look at the problem from a different angle’. Articulating our values as verbs gives us a clear idea… we have a clear idea of how to act in any situation.
‘Always do the right thing’ is better than ‘integrity’ and ‘look at the problem from a different angle’ is better than ‘innovation’ because the former, a verb, in each case is clearer.
The same (importance of verb) is emphasized by L. Dee Fink in his book Creating Significant Learning Experiences in the context of defining learning goals for college students.
Moreover, most people’s vocabulary is particularly poor in verbs. Remember, the verbs from the three examples at the beginning of the post – wash away, dump, and pluck? How many use them? And they’re simple.
3. Don’t ignore simple verbs
You wouldn’t bother to note down words such as slip, give, and move because you think you know them inside out, after all you’ve been using them regularly for ages.
I also thought so… until I explored few of them.
I found that majority of simple words have few common usages we rarely use. Use of simple words for such common usages will stand your communication skills out.
a. To slide suddenly or involuntarily as on a smooth surface: She slipped on the icy ground.
b. To slide out from grasp, etc.: The soap slipped from my hand.
c. To move or start gradually from a place or position: His hat slipped over his eyes.
d. To pass without having been acted upon or used: to let an opportunity slip.
e. To pass quickly (often followed by away or by): The years slipped by.
f. To move or go quietly, cautiously, or unobtrusively: to slip out of a room.
Most use the word in the meaning (a) and (b), but if you use the word for meaning (c) to (f) – which BTW is common – you’ll impress people.
a. Without the physical presence of people in control: an unmanned spacecraft.
b. Hovering near the unmanned iPod resting on the side bar, stands a short, blond man.
c. Political leaders are vocal about the benefits they expect to see from unmanned aircraft.
Most use the word unmanned with a moving object such as an aircraft or a drone, but how about using it with an iPod (see (b) above).
4. Don’t ignore phrasal verbs. Get at least common idioms. Proverbs… maybe
4.1 Phrasal verbs
Phrasal verbs are verbs made from combining a main verb and an adverb or preposition or both. For example, here are few phrasal verbs of verb give:
We use phrasal verbs aplenty:
I went to the airport to see my friend off.
He could see through my carefully-crafted ruse.
I took off my coat.
The new captain took over the reins of the company on June 25.
So, don’t ignore them.
Unfortunately, you can’t predict the meaning of a phrasal verb from the main verb. For example, it’s hard to guess the meaning of take over or take off from take. You’ve to learn each phrasal verb separately.
What about idioms?
Compared to phrasal verbs, idioms are relatively less used, but it’s good to know the common ones. To continue the example of word give, here are few idioms derived from it:
Give and take
Give or take
Give rise to
Want a list of common idioms? It’s here: List of 200 common idioms.
Proverbs are popular sayings that provide nuggets of wisdom. Example: A bird in hand is worth two in the bush.
Compared to phrasal verbs and idioms, they’re much less used in common conversation and therefore you can do without them.
For the motivated, here is a list of common proverbs: List of 200 common proverbs.
5. Steal phrases, words, and even sentences you like
If you like phrases and sentences you come across, add them to your list for future use. I do it all the time and have built a decent repository of phrases and sentences. Few examples (underlined part is the key phrase):
The bondholders faced the prospect of losing their trousers.
The economy behaved more like a rollercoaster than a balloon. [Whereas rollercoaster refers to an up and down movement, balloon refers to a continuous expansion. Doesn’t such a short phrase express such a profound meaning?]
Throw enough spaghetti against the wall and some of it sticks.
You need blue collar work ethic to succeed in this industry.
He runs fast. Not quite.
Time to give up scalpel. Bring in hammer.
Note that you would usually not find such phrases in a dictionary, because dictionaries are limited to words, phrasal verbs, idioms, and maybe proverbs.
6. Commonly-used nouns
One of my goals while building vocabulary has been to learn what to call commonly-used objects (or nouns) that most struggle to put a word to.
To give an example, what would you call the following?
Answer: Tea strainer.
You would sound far more impressive when you say, “My tea strainer has turned blackish because of months of filtering tea.”
Than when you say, “The implement that filters tea has turned blackish because of months of filtering tea.”
What do you say?
Saucer (We use it every day, but call it ‘plate’.)
Straight/ wavy/ curly hair
I’ll end with a brief reference to the UIDAI project that is providing unique biometric ID to every Indian. This project, launched in 2009, has so far issued a unique ID (popularly called Aadhaar card) to more than 1.1 billion people. The project faced many teething problems and has been a one big grind for the implementers. But once this massive data of billion + people was collected, so many obstinate, long-standing problems are being eased using this data, which otherwise would’ve been difficult to pull off. It has enabled faster delivery of scores of government and private services, checked duplication on many fronts, and brought in more transparency in financial and other transactions, denting parallel economy. There are many more. And many more are being conceived on top of this data.
At some level, vocabulary is somewhat similar. It’ll take effort, but once you’ve sizable active vocabulary, it’ll strengthen arguably the most challenging and the most impressive part of your communication. And because it takes some doing, it’s not easy for others to catch up.