We have a tendency to use a small number of words over and over. We are born, of course, without a spoken vocabulary. However, very soon after birth babies respond to certain words (receptive vocabulary), followed quickly by the ability to speak (expressive vocabulary). From that time until early adulthood (typically years spent in school) a person’s vocabulary continues to increase in the number of words and understanding of context. Once people launch out into the world of work, vocabulary tends to remain the same, other than perhaps work-specific vocabulary.
How Many Words Exist?
The Oxford English Dictionary includes approximately 175,000 actively used words. However, the average vocabulary of native English speakers is 20,000 (expressive) and 40,000 (receptive) words. Researchers have concluded that only 3,000 words are necessary to understand 95% of common texts, such as news, blogs, and user guides.
The advantage of knowing more words is that you can comprehend that extra 5% of common texts as well as vocabulary used for work, scholarly research, and technical descriptions. Additionally, possessing a larger vocabulary lets you keep a thesaurus in your brain, so you can use words with more precision. The classic Strunk and White advice in Elements of Style is “Omit needless words.” Often, a longer precise word can replace a simpler phrase.
Don’t Stop at Graduation
Learning does not end with formal schooling, and your vocabulary does not have to stop increasing either. Each of the recommendations in this book provides opportunities to continue learning. When reading blogs, attending webinars and seminars and podcasts, and when reading books, make notes of unfamiliar concepts and words you don’t know.
Capture the Words
Whenever I read a physical, paper book, I use an index card as a bookmark. As I encounter words that are new to my vocabulary or ones that I would like to use more, I write down the word, note the page number where I encountered the word, and look up the definition.
Most e-readers (phones, tablets, etc.) provide a feature to lookup any word. When I long-press over a word one of the options displayed is to Look Up a word. Using this feature provides information about the word, but you still need a way to capture the word and relevant definitions. A small notebook or index card is useful for this purpose.
Review the Words
It is important to review the definition of an unfamiliar word immediately. If you wait until later, you may find a longer list of words and then won’t be motivated to search for the definitions. More importantly, looking up a definition right away means that the context of the word is still fresh on your mind.
I encourage you to expand your vocabulary by creating your own word bank and write down, or at least review, definitions.