Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Ten Tips for Adults

Before we begin, let’s challenge the notion that people who use “big words” do so to impress or belittle other people. While it’s true that some people rely on their vocabularies to elicit those responses out of insecurity, it’s also true thatÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½sometimes those so-called big words are the most deft, purposeful choices for a situation.Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Similar words are endowed with subtly different meanings. The art of accumulating and using a large vocabulary turns on recognizing and employing those differences.

For instance, the words “crotchety,” “cantankerous,” and “petulant” are rough synonyms, but they do possess different connotations. If you’re communicating a nuanced thought or feeling about someone who is irritable and contrary, you have choices available to you! And the more robust your vocabulary, the more choices you have for conveying precisely what you mean.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #1
Studying lists of words is not the way. Spending time at the neighborhood Starbucks, I see plenty of university students preparing for the verbal section of the GRE with storebought word lists, fastidiously prepared flash cards, and other trappings of standardized test mania best served alongside a venti mocha. While not entirely futile, this list-based approach to vocabulary building is misguided at best. Words exist in contexts, and studying words divorced from their contexts makes those words harder to learn – and worse yet, harder to use later. (Think of it this way: if you want to improve your racquetball serve, you’ll probably want to position yourself in an actual racquetball court, right?).

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #2
Read a lot. The experience of encountering unfamiliar words in print is remarkably instructive. First, because you’re already engaged in reading something, you are arguably more motivated to learn a new word so that you better understand what you’re voluntarily reading. Second, you have come across the word organically rather than artificially (i.e. in a vocabulary list). You’ll pick up new words – and clarify meanings of words already in your toolkit – by exposing yourself to them in their, shall we say, natural habitat. The context will enrich your attempt to build a better vocabulary.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #3
Read good writing. I admit that “good writing” is a contentious term, but in general, I consider writing to beÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½”good” if it communicates complex ideas in ways that are clear and concise yet thorough and detailed. In other words, thereÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½should beÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½a tension between sometimes keeping it simple and sometimes using so-called “big words” words because they communicate something that common words just can’t. To put it another way, look for writing that has an intellectual, exploratory bent.

So, what should you read regularly? I’m not qualified to prescribe exact sources for all, but I’ll reveal my biases and recommend some periodicals and blogs I like:

The New York Times (especially�¯�¿�½on Sundays)
The New Yorker
The Utne Reader
Salon (www.salon.com)
Malcolm Gladwell’s Blog (www.gladwell.typepad.com)

There’s a more liberal orientation to the above, but if you prefer socially conservative reading, try the National Review or anything by Ann Coulter. Also, the above are all periodicals or blogs. Regular books are equally effective, and it would be imprudent to ignore them. Fiction (the sort good enough to be classified as literature) and nonfiction are both bound to build your vocabulary.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #4.
Don’t (exclusively) read fluff. It’s okay to indulge in less intellectual reading and writing. We all do it, and it can be fun. But don’t read fluff so steadfastly that you ignore heavier stuff. USA Today is an example of a fluff newspaper notorious for watering down concepts and avoiding sophisticated language in order to appeal to the masses. Although it’s arguable that they’re doing some good by making news more accessible to a wider group of readers, they’re also guilty of neglecting critical shades of grey when it comes to politics, economics, sociology, and the other disciplines they typically cover. Unless your vocabulary is indubitably weak, you’re not going to improve it by reading something like USA Today.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #5.
Diversity of topics is important. Read some natural science stuff. Then read some applied science stuff. Read some contemporary literature. Then read some Shakespeare. Comb through a pop psychology book and then consume a humorous work (and no fair saying those last two are the same!).Ã?¯Ã?¿Ã?½ Varied reading will sharpen both general and subject-specific vocabularies. The diversity of reading material at liberal arts colleges is one reason that graduates of such schools generally possess better vocabularies. History. Philosophy. Biology. Travel. Anthropology. Linguistics. Art. Gender Studies. Politics. You don’t have to be an expert in all disciplines to build a meaty vocabulary, but you do need to be a well-informed reader who’s confident and comfortable reading on topics outside your areas of immediate expertise.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #6.
The process of improving your vocabulary is ongoing – not so much a discrete act as a component of everyday edification. You can’t just sit down for five minutes a day and say, “I’m going to do my vocabulary workout right now.” It’s not like doing ab crunches or squat thrusts.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #7.
Stop and look up unfamiliar words immediately. Read with a thorough dictionary handy – never a reductive, overly abridged pocket model. Better yet, use a resource like www.dictionary.com, which provides definitions from multiple sources and often gives useful examples of the vocabulary in action. And don’t just hastily look up the word and move on. Take time to understand pronunciation, say the word aloud, and read the sample sentences if they’re present. Doing so will help firm your grasp on the new language.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #8.
Don’t limit yourself to learning new words in print. Picking up vocabulary in the midst of a public lecture, a PBS show, or a radio broadcast might be a little trickier (because spelling isn’t obvious), but it’s doable. You may even want to jot down phonetic versions words that you encounter when you’re indisposed and thenÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½investigate them when you have free time.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #9.�¯�¿�½
Try out your new vocabulary in speech and writing. While I don’t advocate standing around waiting for the chance to drop your newest gewgaw, don’t be afraid to experiment with language. It is incumbent upon us as English speakers to celebrate the language by actually using it. Sprinkle new words in your blogs, in your emails, and in your conversationsÃ?¯Ã?¿Ã?½so long as they’re germane.

Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #10.
Delight in language. It sounds absurd for me to preach this. After all, how can I insist that people revel in words? But the truth is that you’ll learn more effectively when you find it enjoyable. Let me illustrate.

Look at the word “aspersion.” It’s a term that I first encountered several years ago. Although I recognized the word, I admitted to myself that I didn’t really understand exactly what it meant. When I looked it up, I was surprised to see that it had two basic meanings: one related to slander and one related to holy water. Depending on your attitude toward the church, there is some laughable irony present. I consistently come across little gems – funny stories, unusual origins, previously unfamiliar double meaningsâÂ?¦.and it’s, well, fun! I hope that, when you reach for the dictionary to define a new vocabulary word, it’s not something you dread.

Effective Ways to Build Vocabulary: Final Thought
Don’t overdo it. Remember: there’s a reason why words like “encomium” and “ossified” are not used on a daily basis. Many vocabulary words derive their power and import from their infrequent deployment.

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