What’s the best way to acquire a large vocabulary in English. The organic way, by learning new words as you come across them? Making your own list and attaching a memory aid for learning a word? Using some kind of computer app that helps you learn new words? Or …

The native speakers with the largest vocabularies generally acquired them through varied and extensive reading. That’s also the best way to make sure that (a) the “new” words lie in areas that actually matter to you, and (b) you understand how to use the new words naturally.

It might be worthwhile to supplement with some sort of memory aid if you need to learn a large number of words from a particular domain, but that would fall more under the area of domain studies than pure vocabulary.


I would agree. My guess is that the best way would be to learn organically, but through putting yourself into situations (through reading, etc) where you are exposed to new words.

As an aside: Whilst I don’t claim to have a very high vocabulary, I’ve reached the stage where I’m comfortable that I have all the words I need. That is, unless I was writing about a particularly technical subject which requires it’s own glossary, I’m comfortable that if I don’t already know the word, it’s probably not appropriate to include in a piece.

What do others think? Is there a point where your vobabulary is good enough? Is a word you know that others won’t simply a waste of storage space in your brain?

It depends on what you read and write, really. If you only need/want to deal with contemporary stuff, what you hear in normal conversation will suffice for most of your reading. But you won’t be able to be very intelligently expressive (I say “intelligently”, because you can be pretty expressive if you swear emphatically enough :slight_smile:).

I think that if you really want to grow your vocabulary, read older books. Turn-of-the-century (the previous century, that is; not this one) writing usually reads very differently from modern books, and a large part of that is the vocabulary. Go back further and you’ll find even more words that aren’t common today. In particular, the Sherlock Holmes stories come to mind as both highly enjoyable and instructive, but pretty much anything from that period will do.

Is it worth it? I think so. Sometimes there’s that one word that fits better than the colloquial word. On the other hand, focus on your vocabulary too much, and your conversations might become harder to follow, instead of easier.

Would that make your vocabulary “better”, or just “more archaic”? To take an extreme version of this, one way to increase your vocabulary would be to learn some foreign language words. Perhaps a nice word or two of Greek, or maybe Klingon. Your vocabulary would be larger, but you’d look pretty odd for using it.

I’m not sure I agree with this. My opinion is that the intellect comes from the concepts expressed. If someone is unable to express those concepts simply then they probably don’t understand them well enough yet. If you rely on large or unfamiliar words and phrases to express something, I’d say you don’t come across as expressing yourself intelligently, but pretentiously.

I fink y’ shud jus tork em, like wot I do. :wink:

Well, I love new words, the more exotic the better. I think we should hoard them, burnish them and then bring them out on special occasions, like Grandma’s tea set.

I came across a new one (to me) yesterday in a book by an old friend: “absquatulate”, which has a faintly interesting history, describes what looks likely to become the typical behaviour of Middle Eastern dictators, and is much more expressive than its synonym, “abscond”.

Who will be the first news correspondent to report that Mubarak is absquatulating? Sadly, probably none.

But wouldn’t everyone blustrificate and be goshbustified if someone did? :wink:

pigfender, I don’t think that came out the way I intended. I didn’t mean to say that a higher vocabulary makes you more intelligent, but that a higher vocabulary can help make your intelligence more evident. You’re right in that there’s an extreme where you use flowery speech that most people won’t even understand, but there’s the opposite extreme, which is what you see in 1984 (“That food is double-plus good!” vs “I enjoyed the texture and subtle hint of lime”).

As for making your vocabulary too archaic, I figured the TC just wanted to learn more words. By definition, if you go outside the standard colloquial vocabulary that most people use, you’re going to learn archaic words. I do think that Sherlock Holmes has some useful uncommon words in there, such as “austere” or “asperity”, that can only enhance your expressiveness without making you seem too pretentious. Of course, just make sure to avoid using certain phrases that now have entirely different meanings. Not sure of the forum rules on this, so I won’t say the word itself, but it means “to exclaim”, and also starts with an ‘e’ :slight_smile:

A lot depends on the circles in which you move. I live in Cambridge, and, as a friend commented to me, conversations there can turn into a game of chess in which a 30,000 word vocabulary is about the minimum you can get away with, and a passing knowledge of Greek and Latin is useful for making a guess at the meaning of words you’ve never encountered before – provided your interlocutor (there’s one) is not the kind who has fluent Mandarin and sometimes forgets that you haven’t. In this environment, it’s not pretentious: it’s just the way that everybody in the university community speaks here, because that’s what they’ve always known. They don’t really know how to express themselves any other way. But apart from the fact that it’s normal here, there are plenty of people who enjoy the elegance of “old-fashioned” English – and I confess I’m one of them. But on the real subject that started off this thread, this article may be of interest:


It basically suggests that when it comes to learning vocabulary in L2 (the second language) a variety of stimuli associated with the word (pictures, video, music, etc) will aid memorisation. There is also some evidence to suggest that anything that stimulates “deep processing” (going into the meaning of the word, rather than just learning a simple translation) will help memorisation. But I guess, as always, a variety of strategies will probably work best. Don’t put all the eggs in one basket.

Best of luck with it,

Thanks Kathrerine and Martin. The provided link is useful. It seems that Katherines method is called incidental learning and gives 25% active learning and 77% passive learning. Using multimedia is best when text+picture combination is used. Text and video or sound are not as good.

Glad to be of help. Teaching English used to be my job – a long time ago.

Cheers, Martin.

And just think, that’s not even the other Cambridge (Mass), where everyone speaks in high Mandarin while playing 5-dimensional chess and inventing home appliances that actually work! :bulb: :unamused: :bulb:

vic-k’s doomed then.

Shakespeare’s vocabulary was 29000 words. In fact less because he coined more than 1700 new words that were unknown in medieval England, words like amazement, gloomy and equivocal. In Cambridge he wouldn’t have a chance. :open_mouth:

Perhaps that’s why he stayed away :wink: There are ways round it, though. I just pretend I know what people are talking about. Works well until they start trying to get your ideas on the subject. But nowadays we do have the advantage that we have all of Shakespeare’s inventions already made for us, and a load of scientists all over the world beavering away inventing things like aeroplanes and computers that give us a vast technical vocabulary that even Shakespeare probably couldn’t have imagined we would have. However, we would probably have a much more interesting technical vocabulary if he had been responsible for inventing it. I wonder what he would have called RAM.

“Light thickens, and the crow makes wing to the rooky wood.”
Good night,

Although not in Cambridge, I am most definitely a product of Cambridge. I think it fair to say that as a result my English is “traditional” or some would have it “old-fashioned and formal” and a good friend calls it “posh”. But I love the enormous range of structure that our language makes available, and I love the huge vocabulary and the precision it can give to what you’re saying; and the two combine to make possible beautiful and sonorous expression.

I think I mentioned once before in a thread the American Professor I met in Beijing, a couple of years back, who in the evening, on hearing me speak, said that one of the first things that struck him and excited his admiration on arriving in Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar was the richness and depth of structure and vocabulary of his English fellow scientists there compared with his American colleagues … and then the next morning told me that I should simplify my language.

How can I instill in my students a feeling for the beauty of our language if I limit myself to 13 word sentences, with not more than one subordinate clause, and no use of the passive or words that can’t be found in a tabloid newspaper?

Should I write to the editor of our local West London magazine “The Green” to point out that the expression is magnum opus not magnus opus? :smiling_imp:


At t’other end of t’other Cambridge, everyone gathers at Bartley’s Burger Cottage to culinarily infarct and opine that you really Kant get they-ah from hee-ah.

I am not scholar, nor am I educated in the traditional sense. I like to think that I read a bit, much of which is foreign and/or olderish (If Joyce, Shakespeare and London can manufacture words on a whim, why can’t I?). And while I am certain that no one will believe this on first read, I very rarely concoct these grammatical, syntactical, or wise-arsey lines without thought. I admit that as time has passed I am less thoughtful on this particular forum as “rubbing shoulders with the elite” has made some of my more common mistakes less frequent and greatly sharpened my … instinct.

Which makes me wonder if the lack of real human interaction has reduced our instinctual communication skills to little more than a medieval or even earlier level. Can one really use complex grammar with folks who can only txt thr bf4vr (yes the daughditor had to help me with that)? Is the modern mind, that of the masses, actually retrogressing in true intellectual communication capability? Consider this, the federal government is requiring that all “speed zone ahead” signs be replaced with signs that are a picture of the upcoming speed limit sign. The study that drove this change found too many drivers under the age of 30 were unable to associate the written sign with a need to prepare for a speed change. Note that this is not a group under 20, this was a group of under 30, with a large population of “edumacated” individuals in it. I am glad to see my taxes are being well spent by the education establishment.

The point that I think I am trying to make is that the problem is with the powers in charge. The populace is devolving as is evidenced by the editorial styles at virtually every level. Would Tolkien get published today? What about Joyce? We know Twain/Clemens is out, along with Billy S.† and Byron.

Mr X, I would propose to you that we are the new archaic. That which is old fashioned but of little to no use in the current context of function. We should all congregate in one corner to collect dust while insulting the masses in language they neither understand or attempt to comprehend.


†[size=60]Forgive the irreverence, but I have a particular dislike of Mr S. Not sure why. I like watching but not reading his works. Which is a shame really. Although he may not think so as he wrote them to be watched, not read. Hmmm… maybe I am on to something there…[/size]

That made me laugh so much I actually choked.

May I join you?

Best, Martin.

PS: “True wit is nature to advantage dressed, / What oft was thought, but ne’er so well expressed”.
I like the idea of trying to express something well – not just in any old way that will get the basic message across. Meet you in the corner.

May I join the new club too, please? Have we got a title yet?

How about ‘Senes Stomachosi’? [1]


[1] Can’t have this in English because they’ve already used it for a TV series…