The Importance of Building Your Vocabulary (And 5 Easy Steps to Doing It)

by Brett & Kate McKay on October 3, 2012 · 59 comments

in A Man's Life, Personal Development

Awhile back, we offered advice on how to remove empty filler from your speech by minimizing how often you say “uh” and “um.”

Today, we’re going to talk about removing another kind of filler from your speech (and your writing as well): empty words. Just like empty calories have the form of food but offer no nourishment to the eater, empty words take the form of verbiage, but offer no substance to the listener – leaving them hungry for meaning and details.

While “uh’s” and “um’s” can be eliminated altogether, empty words need to be replaced with heartier fare. Stocking your cupboard with such means building a large and varied vocabulary.

It seems like the only people who think about building their vocabulary are young adults who are preparing for standardized tests. Which is a shame, as expanding our vocabularies should be a lifelong pursuit. Why so? Because a command of words can benefit your life in many ways.

The Benefits of Building Your Vocabulary

Gives you the ability to say what you mean. Is your speech filled more with emotion than meaning? Is everything either “stupid” or “awesome?”

The overuse of a word to describe a wide range of seemingly unrelated things saps it of any meaning. If a corn dog, a YouTube video, a job promotion, and the Great Wall of China are all “awesome,” then awesome ceases to have any meaning at all. Think of your vocabulary like the dial on an amp – if it’s always turned up to 11, you don’t have anywhere to go when trying to describe something truly impressive. Your only resort is to add empty intensifiers: “But seriously, it was really awesome.” The less you use what should be a meaningful word, the more potent it becomes (this goes for swear words too, by the way).

Conversely, a nimble working vocabulary gives you the ability to make finer and finer distinctions between things so that you can say exactly what you mean, and be explicit instead of vague when sharing your ideas and opinions or simply making conversation. This increases your chances of having other people understand what you wish to express, and at the same time it…

Helps you understand other people. Building your vocabulary involves more than just memorizing lists of the kinds of words you had to know for the SAT. Just as learning a second language can help you understand people from other countries, increasing your working vocabulary allows you to understand those who may share your mother tongue but also have a special “dialect” of their own. People’s fields of work and interests often come with special terminology that isn’t as commonly known. The more of these “special” words you learn, the greater the variety of people you can connect with.

Not only does a diverse vocabulary allow you to build rapport with a wide range of people, but knowing some medical, legal, and other technical/professional lingo can prevent you from being taken advantage of, and allow you to be proactive in your approach to dealing with doctors, lawyers, mechanics, customer service, and so on.

Helps you understand what you read. Vocabulary not only aids you in understanding other people, it’s also essential in comprehending the books and articles you read. Words you’re unfamiliar with become little holes in the text, preventing you from reaching a complete understanding of what you’re reading.

Assists you in becoming a more informed and involved citizen. Related to the two points above, the more you increase your vocabulary in general, and also specifically in areas like politics, geography, the military, and so on, the better able you become to understand news and currents events, and the more widely varied the conversations, discussions, and debates you can jump into. And when you do take part in a debate, you’ll be able to use – gasp! – facts, instead of heated bloviations.

Bolsters your ability to grasp ideas and think more logically and incisively. While we often think of our thoughts as shaping our words, it works the other way around as well. Think of words like a set of tools – a small vocabulary is like trying to carve a sculpture with only a chainsaw, versus using a whole set of different instruments that can make both broad and fine cuts. The greater the number of words at your disposal, the more instruments you have with which to hone your own ideas, and dissect and examine those of others.

Allows you to communicate effectively. A masterful command of words, and the ability to select just the right ones to express a specific idea, for a particular audience (more on this below), is essential in crafting powerful and engaging speech and writing. The repetition of the same words over and over again quickly bores people, while the skilled use of a wide array of them enables you to draw people in and paint a rich picture. This is why an expansive vocabulary is one of the keys for great leaders – words allow you to grab the interest, and then allegiance, of others.

And a robust vocabulary is just as important when you’re operating off the cuff as when your remarks are pre-planned – instead of hemming and hawing, searching for the right words to say, you can express yourself forcefully and with confidence.

Boosts your powers of persuasion. It’s hard to get people interested in an idea – whether a tangible product, a business pitch, or a piece of philosophy — and convince them of it unless you 1) understand it inside and out yourself, and 2) can describe it to others in an engaging way (see the two points above). Repeating the same word over and over again (“I’ve got this cool idea. See, it’s got this cool wheel here and then this really cool axle stick outs…”) is going to have the eyes of your audience quickly glazing over. It certainly won’t help you sell them on something, or on yourself — issuing banalities in a job interview (“I’m a hard worker and a people person!”) won’t do anything to set you apart from the myriad of other hard working, people-pleasing candidates.

Helps you make a good impression on others. How articulate you are constitutes a big part of the impression you make on others. Based on the vocabulary you use, people will make judgments about your socioeconomic background, education, occupation, and the stimulation and demands of your everyday life (a stay-at-home mom sometimes starts using baby language when talking with adults, while a professor may drop very academic terms into casual conversation).

It’s not a particularly unfair judgment to make. Your schooling, circle of friends, job, and reading habits do have a direct and considerable effect on your vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re a construction worker or don’t have many years of schooling, that a sizable vocabulary is out of reach. Building your vocabulary is a very egalitarian pursuit: anybody can do it, and can start anytime.

Malcolm X serves as a great example of this, and many of the above points as well. His formal education ended in junior high, and as a young man he fell into a life of crime and was eventually arrested and put in prison for burglary.

As he recalled in his autobiography, behind bars X (then named Malcolm Little), came under the mentorship of a fellow prisoner, whose self-education Little envied, and who motivated him to get some “homemade education” for himself.

Little was particularly frustrated that he was unable “to express what I wanted to convey in letters that I wrote…In the street, I had been the most articulate hustler out there — I had commanded attention when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English, I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.” Little was also vexed by his difficulty in reading: “Every book I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really ended up with little idea of what the book said.”

He was motivated to turn this around for himself, and so requested some tablets, pencils, and a dictionary from the prison. After rifling through the dictionary’s countless pages, amazed at the number of words he didn’t know and confused about which he needed to learn, Little turned to the first page of entries and started slowly and painstakingly copying each and every one of them by hand, “down to the punctuation marks.” It took him a whole day to inscribe one page, after which he read the words back to himself over and over again.

Malcolm woke up the next morning “thinking about those words — immensely proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time, but I’d writ­ten words that I never knew were in the world. Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t remember.”

He repeated the same process over and over again, going page by page through the dictionary copying every single word, until finally he had copied the entire tome. This exercise did not take long to bear the prisoner rich fruits:

“I suppose it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine the new world that opened.”

Little became a voracious reader, devouring every book the prison library had to offer. Once he had served out his sentence, his vocabulary studies transformed him into an articulate speaker, known for his incisive rhetoric. Even those who didn’t agree with what he had to say were impressed with how he said it. As he himself recalled, “Many who today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison studies.”

The good news here is not only that anyone who has the discipline and motivation to build their vocabulary can succeed, but there’s a much easier way of doing it than copying down the entire dictionary!

The 5 Easy Steps to Building Your Vocabulary

There are a lot of good strategies for building your vocabulary — learning the meaning of suffixes, prefixes, and roots of words, going through word lists and making flash cards for the words you don’t know, and signing up for a daily “Word of the Day” email from a website like, to name a few.

But since I personally find it hard to motivate myself to study etymology, considered my flash card days over when I left law school, and know I wouldn’t open my Word of the Day email consistently (despite a pang of guilt each time), let me share my favorite vocabulary-building method. It’s a simple and classic one that helps you build your vocabulary gradually and naturally – without too much extra exertion. While it’s been around a long time, I first discovered it through one of those old cheesy, but wise, instructional films that I love:

Here’s how it works:

The slow but earnest Mr. Willis tries to advocate for the building of a park, but has trouble expressing himself. In fact, the lady on the left was heard to mutter, “Whatcha talkin’ about Willis?”

1. Read. Reading is the single biggest thing you can do to increase your vocabulary (and of course it offers a whole host of other benefits as well). Without specifically trying to study vocabulary, you encounter tons of new words, the meaning of which you can often glean from the context in which the word is situated (although you shouldn’t rely exclusively on context – see below). Reading offers not just an awareness of words, but a real feel for them.

Mr. Willis takes up reading to boost his vocabulary — checking out books on everything from home decorating to his printing business.

The broader and more challenging your reading selections, the beefier your working vocabulary will become. Strive to read both nonfiction and fiction. Instead of only browsing content-aggregator sites, read entire articles in high-caliber newspaper like The New York Times or The Wall Street Journal, and magazines like The Atlantic. Also dip into periodicals on different kinds of subjects like The Smithsonian or Scientific American.

2. Listen. You can also pick up new words from the people you talk with and listen to. This is, after all, exactly how you learned words back when you were a toddler. Our son Gus is always picking up new words from things we say, trying to figure out the context, and then trying them out himself (it’s excellent motivation to curb your cursing!). Sometimes he gets it right, sometimes he gets it wrong – often to comedic effect.

Of course, the effectiveness of this listen-to-learn method depends on who you surround yourself with. Challenge yourself by associating with well-educated people, watching interesting lectures, and taking the harder classes in school, even if doing so makes you uncomfortable. Iron sharpens iron, and the vocabulary of those with keens minds will rub off on you.

Mr. Willis begins to jot down words he hears and reads that he doesn’t know the meaning of.

3. Write down words you read and hear that you don’t know. Reading and listening are the ways you expose yourself to new words. Once someone uses a word you’re unfamiliar with, or you come across a new word while reading, write it down in a pocket notebook (or your smartphone).

Mr. Willis transfers his new word list to a special vocabulary notebook.

4. Look up the word in a dictionary and write down its meaning in a vocabulary notebook. Whenever you hear or read a new word, you should always stop and try to figure out its meaning from the context in which it is given. But a word can have multiple meanings and shades of meaning, the author or speaker could possibly have used the word incorrectly, and even if you do guess the right meaning, you may quickly forget it. So don’t stop there. Once you get a chance, look up the new word you wrote down in your pocket notebook in a dictionary (new dictionary apps make doing this possible on the go), and then write it and its definition in a larger notebook dedicated to learning new vocabulary. Keep the definition short and put it in your own words – you don’t really understand something if you can’t explain it yourself.

You can customize yours with some cool stickers.

It’s also important to jot down the pronunciation of the word – not with fancy symbols, but phonetically in a way you will understand. For example, for the word “oblique,” you could write its pronunciation as “oh-bleek.” What’s great about the advent of online dictionaries is that they often have a button to click to hear the word being spoken aloud. Knowing how to correctly pronounce a word is crucial – dropping big words into conversation, but saying them incorrectly is worse than not saying the words at all. Once you’ve written down the proper pronunciation, say the word aloud several times.

You might also write down some of the word’s synonyms, and even draw a picture that can help you remember its meaning.

5. Use the new word several times in conversation as soon as you can. This will really help sear the word into your mind.

Mr. Willis redoes his presentation, this time dropping in words like “vacillate” and “ultimatum” and the crowd goes wild. Way to go Mr. Willis!

Catering Your Vocabulary to Your Crowd

Once you start building your vocabulary, you may be tempted to throw out the big words you’ve learned every chance you get.

But just as important as expanding your vocabulary, is learning to use it appropriately. A large vocabulary is not accumulated for showing off; it’s a tool that allows you to communicate more effectively. Using the wrong vocabulary at the wrong time negates this function.

If you use big, uncommon words with your friends while watching a football game, they might not understand you, and definitely will think you’re putting on airs. Ditto for when you’re first getting to know someone — a purposeful display of your large vocabulary will make people think you’re smug and pretentious. At the same time, you don’t want to fill your speech with slang words when you’re being considered by a panel of faculty for a professorship. And while you do want to use technical terms when discussing your invention with fellow scientists, you don’t when trying to sell your idea to a layman venture capitalist.

You get the idea. Cater your vocabulary to the circumstances and pick words that will allow you both to express yourself and make yourself understood, while being engaging and setting your listener at ease. Never assume a shared vocabulary and know your audience!

Finally, always remember Mark Twain’s famous admonition to not “use a five-dollar word when a fifty-cent word will do.” And occasionally, even using a nickel piece is fine; if “awesome” or “epic” really is the best word to describe how you feel about something, then go for it – pompous vocab police be damned.

{ 59 comments… read them below or add one }

1 Christian October 3, 2012 at 6:34 pm

I totally agree with this post. Words are one of the tools we use to understand the world around us. If you don’t have the tools, your understanding can only go so far.

2 neal October 3, 2012 at 6:40 pm

Heartily concur with your number one point of READING.

I ran a test prep business for quite a few years, and I was always having parents ask me what their young kids should do to prepare for the SAT or ACT. Kids who weren’t even in high school yet. A lot of companies are happy to enroll those kids in some course, and keep them paying for classes for the next five years. But what a time and money suck!

I mostly told those parents that the very best thing their kids could do is READ. A. LOT. And while reading something is better than nothing, I’d suggest they have their children pick out both classic novels and a variety of periodicals, like Businessweek, The Economist, The New Yorker, Popular Mechanics, Scientific American. Some parents understood that I was offering their child a pattern of self-education that would be worth far more than I could offer them with never-ending flash cards and timed drills.

Others didn’t seem to understand why I wouldn’t immediately offer them some quick-fix course they could pay for. And since my policy was no college test-prep courses for anyone younger than tenth grade, they went searching elsewhere for some place to throw their money.

But I still maintain that the number one thing to improve vocabulary, not to mention reading comprehension, critical thinking, and even writing ability, is to simply READ. A. LOT.

3 Perry Hua October 3, 2012 at 7:09 pm

I fully agree. A robust vocabulary is incredibly useful for all areas of our lives. It helps advance a person more consciously and profoundly. What really defines the mastery of vocabulary however is when to use it in context. Having a huge library of words doesn’t mean you have to use them all the time. If something is better said in a simpler fashion then that’s the best course to take. It not only shows sophistication but wits for giving the concern that others want to understand you as well. Brevity really is the soul of wit.

4 Andrew October 3, 2012 at 8:11 pm

I Google things all the time. On top of words I come across while reading, a word might just randomly pop into my head and I Google it. Or I might think of something and do some quick research, tonight for instance I was thinking about turbojets and skimmed the wiki page.

This weekend is Canadian Thanksgiving, I’m thankful for my Galaxy S3 (and Google, which I guess makes Android OS so just an extension of my phone-love) with LTE internet and 6gb data plan, because my phone spends more time on the internet than anywhere else.
More people should do it, you end up learning a little bit about a ton of things.

5 Tim October 3, 2012 at 8:36 pm

I enjoy watching TED Talks online, they’re highly educational, cover a myriad of subjects, and are typically presented in such a way as to be deeply impactful and inspiring.

I may not be a college student anymore, but that’s not to say I’m not actively expanding my technical vernacular.

6 Michael October 3, 2012 at 8:56 pm

I would also suggest writing as a method to grow your vocabulary. Learning to use new words in writing is a very good way to cement the meanings in your mind. Also, it’s embarrassing to know the meaning of a “five dollar” word, yet be unable to spell that word. The concept of total literacy seems to be a waning trait in society. Being able to express yourself both in words and writing makes you a much more versatile communicator.

7 Cisco October 3, 2012 at 9:55 pm

Thank you very much!

8 Kevin October 3, 2012 at 10:22 pm

I completely agree with the point on reading. I am currently in high school and have been an avid reader for most of my life. It continuously amazes me when I am in English class and come across a word that I have known for years, only to have someone ask the definition of that word. To all people of any age who wish to expand there vocabulary, reading is probably the most effective, as well as the most entertaining way to do so. To those who already have an extensive vocabulary through reading, do you have any suggestions on new reading material for me?

9 Michael Hsueh October 3, 2012 at 11:46 pm

I was very happy in high school to see that my love for reading put me in the enviable position of not needing to study vocabulary for the SAT. Alas, the same did not apply when I studied for the GRE — that was a whole ‘nother level!

Can anybody suggest a favorite book that is both enjoyable AND has an expansive vocabulary? I’ve found that the English translations of Les Miserables are amazingly complex (almost florid, sometimes) but are still profound and very fun to read!

10 Fearless October 4, 2012 at 12:46 am

Excellent post, and timely also. According to research performed by the Princeton Review, the vocabulary of many Americans has diminished greatly over the years. Analyzing presidential debates they found the Lincoln-Douglas debate to be spoken at the educational level of a standard 11th grader. The Bush-Gore debate stood at a 7th grade standard.
*Kindle app is free on Galaxy S3. Amazon offers over 100 classics free also. (The odyssey, crime and punishment, etc…)
*Hard copy dictionary on your desk.

11 Darragh Creamer October 4, 2012 at 2:22 am

This is a great post, and very important today. It seems that people’s vocabulary is shrinking all the time, even down to bloggers and broadcast journalists.

For example, if/when you’re reading anything on the net today, look at the amount of times the verd “to do” is repeated when it could better be replaced by a synonym such as perform, execute, carry out, operate etc.


12 Gareth October 4, 2012 at 4:02 am

Thanks for this persuasive article and for the practical steps in expanding our vocabulary.

13 The Dutch Dastard October 4, 2012 at 5:09 am

Great article! I will swear by the reading and listening until I die, as it’s the way I’ve learned to speak English. As I spent a lot of time on the couch watching Dutch subtitled series and reading in English as a child I’ve never had much use for a ‘formal’ education in English. I closed the subject in final exams with a 9.5 out of 10, never having really studied a minute.

As for pronunciation I highly recommend a poem called ‘The Chaos’. It’s a high paced lesson in humility if you think you speak English. Be sure to have one of those digital dictionaries handy, as you will need it. A lot.

14 Dominick October 4, 2012 at 6:52 am

I dare say this method is extremely effective at learning foreign languages as well. There is no better way to learn vocabulary in a foreign language than to read and listen.

15 Ellen October 4, 2012 at 7:42 am

Thank you for this article. I’ve always been a voracious reader (actually I can’t remember a time when I couldn’t read) and as a consequence, my vocabulary is formidable (tending to inspire awe).

Now if only I could do math……..

16 Bryan October 4, 2012 at 8:34 am

Another way that reading helps improve vocabulary is that when you’re reading, you see how the words are actually used. If you just read the dictionary, you may learn several formal definitions, but still not use the word quite right. By reading, you’ll get comfortable with how to use specific words and when.

My two favorite words: ubiquitous and egregious

17 Mark Ruddick October 4, 2012 at 8:45 am

My teachers beat me with Roget’s. Ad homonym.

18 Matthew October 4, 2012 at 9:14 am

May I recommend the following. It’s awesome. Today’s word was “bacchanal”.

19 Dan October 4, 2012 at 10:30 am

This is a great article, and the comments are equally inspiring – command of one’s native language is a skill that differentiates the true lifelong learner from those that finished school, and subsequently finished learning.

The only thing I would add would be to make sure your *content* is more than adequate, as well. One’s grandiloquent vernacular can be dexterously exercised to camouflage one’s paucity of contextual significance. ;-)

20 ACE October 4, 2012 at 11:32 am

Thanks for those wonderful practical steps in expanding our vocabulary.

21 Claude October 4, 2012 at 1:17 pm

At dinner every night, we have a word-of-the-day session where everyone is expected to give the definition of a new word. If they didn’t come across any by chance, they are allowed to look in books or online for new words, but they must be prepared by supper time. The kids find it to be a fun way to learn.

22 Josh October 4, 2012 at 1:47 pm

Excellent article. Personally, I like to use Google to define any term I can’t remember the full definition for. Google’s web history allows me to review those words once in a while.

Catering one’s words to one’s audience is essential. English contains no perfect synonyms, so the purpose of using $5 words is to concisely convey more information. If your audience isn’t going to understand the word, then don’t waste their time by using it. If you can replace an uncommon word with a common one, then do so. My rule-of-thumb is if someone were to ask what the word means, and I can give a one-word answer, then I just say that instead of the original word.

23 Jeremy October 4, 2012 at 1:49 pm

This is great! My dad always emphasizes an increase in vocabulary; his two biggest points are much alike two of your’s:

Helps you understand other people.
Helps you make a good impression on others.

He would use those two phrases to encapsulate other points, like increasing confidence, persuasion, comprehension of the world at large . . .

His greatest example is that as an engineer his hand-writing is terrible (not universal, but true at least for the engineers in my family and friend group). In his freshman year of university his great-uncle invested in the up-and-coming Macintosh company; my dad’s grammar, spelling, and overall grasp on the English language was poor (for no reason besides his lack of attention in school). However, he claims that he passed college because he was able to present a well-styled, typed essay. Presentation is everything to him; a stronger grasp on our vast language allows people like me – in the social sciences – to impress upon my audiences a more confident and “typed” essay.

24 Jim Collins October 4, 2012 at 2:17 pm

Esteemed Kate, Brett, and Readers,

This subject has long been an obsession of mine. Perhaps it is because the design of a rhetorically sound presentation is one of my strengths. Professionally (I’m a biochemist and cellular biologist), I am surrounded by people a damned sight smarter than me, as is my wife; but I have benefited from a knack for not only putting my finger on the phrase, but for structuring those phrases into stories that engage people. It is my salient strength.

What we say is built of the words we use, the order we say them in, and how we look and sound when we say them.
It is easy and perhaps erroneous for me to speculate about the reasons why I have this ability; and I run the risk of self-rationalization and self-congratulation in that speculation. I will therefore offer these arrogant thoughts in such limited humility as I can muster in the hope that readers will cast my self importance on the dung heap and perhaps sort some value out of my pretense.

I grew up immersed in three story telling traditions: Irish, Northwest Plateau Indian, and the nascent field of television entertainment in which my dad worked. One might say that I was never quite sure if my dad was James Joyces’ Finnegan, Chief Joseph, or Ronald MacDonald. I also benefited from being a sick little kid; what you CAN do while you’re sick-a-bed is read.

Then I discovered bicycles and it was like the realization of flying dreams. Suddenly, I wasn’t a sick little kid, I was a vigorous guy who lived on a bicycle. Dropping out of high school with a lottery number of eighteen and thinking that Canada was probably more healthful that Vietnam led me to a career as a bicycle racer, and that in turn led me to a pressing need to learn another language when I was sold to a Belgian team—we took our orders in French.

Much later, after many odd jobs, through a series of short sighted decisions, I was admitted to the University of Washington School of Medicine in the Biochemistry Department on the merit of the skills I had developed as a marijuana farmer and as a salesman. That’s another story.

Now, I am privileged to work as a scientist because I can do two things: I can write and I can stand in front of an audience of scientists and own their attention.

What follows is most emphatically not advice. Rather, it is a description of what I do in addition to those very sound things advised by the authors of AoM.

1) Whenever I am at my desk, I keep a web page open to the OED (Oxford English Dictionary).

2) I am as interested in connotation as denotation.

3) I consider each word I am exposed to in its lexical, stipulative, precising, operative, vernacular, and phonic qualities.

4) I use new words, not necessarily with an audience; but with myself. If we are to use a broad vocabulary with facility rather than sound like someone who is trying to sound smart, the words must spring readily from both our tongues and our finger tips.

5) I sing. Language is not just an intellectual exercise. It is something a dynamic and intelligent animal does. Singing will contribute to your control of voice, tone, and inflection. The only person who sounds bad singing is a person who is afraid to sing. Bark and howl with your dog. Caw with a crow. Honk with a goose. Sing a child’s song with a child. They get it.

6) I Listen. There is a music to language, a rhythm, a melody, and it’s different for each person, each dialect. I eves drop, on the bus, on the street, in a restaurant, and I try not to judge, but to absorb the song. Each word has a sound. Some are as melodious as the word “melodious” and some kick you the way the word “kick” does.

7) I listen to my recorded speech. It often appalls me; but I judge it to be worth the courage it takes.

8) I study more than one language. My French stinks, but I liken the effort to the hard work out that makes throwing a perfect punch easy.

I do recommend reading “The Fresh Usual Words” in the text “Western Wind” by David Mason as well as “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White.

I also recommend trusting your own voice. You have your own and embracing it will serve you. As Miles Davis told us, “You have to sound like a lot of other people before you sound like yourself.”

Should you find these comments silly, ‘taint no never mind, and almost all American English speakers understood that instantly in their gut.

Verbose Regards,

Jim Collins

25 Ernie October 4, 2012 at 10:08 pm

Some people just have a way with words. Some…uh, not have way.

26 Philip October 5, 2012 at 1:05 am

Love this post. I have found the adage “iron sharpens iron” to be very true. It is when I am surrounded by the more intelligent of my friends that my vocabulary suddenly shoots through the roof.

I’d recommend to anyone actively working to increase their working knowledge of the english language. I’ve only been using it for a bit, but have been very impressed so far.

27 Josh October 5, 2012 at 2:29 am

For anyone thinking about expanding their vocabulary and/or use of English, I recommend David Foster Wallace’s excellent article Tense Present from Harper’s Magazine.

28 Jared October 5, 2012 at 8:47 am

I must disparage Andrew on his vain attempt to convey an endorsement without rousing our suspicion. However, such frail efforts to veil the obvious intent of his message are off putting and lead to an aversion of the advertised product.

29 Ram October 5, 2012 at 12:32 pm

I would like to recommend the Google Dictionary extension for google chrome

It makes it very simple to look up words online and is excellent for the person who doesn’t wish to go through the effort of writing down the word and looking it up later.

Sadly, I cannot seem to find a similar plugin for Firefox.

30 Jacob October 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm

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31 Matt October 5, 2012 at 9:02 pm

I totally agree with your approach above. I have an extensive vocabulary, but am always looking to add new words to my repertoire. I read a lot of news articles as you suggested above (NTY and Reuters) on my morning commute, and follow your approach. Whenever I come upon a word I don’t know, I immediately go to my free app and look it up and star it so I can refer back to it later. I also try to use the word in conversation properly ASAP, which I believe help me retain its meaning and recall it later. Good advice.

32 Walt C. October 5, 2012 at 9:39 pm

Great article on an important – and often ignored – facet of manliness. My personal favorite is the advice to read on a wide variety of subjects. I’ve been an avid reader most of my life and it has not only increased my vocabulary, but it has taught me many things about this great big world we live in. You don’t have to read “War and Peace”, but an article here and there from a hodge-podge of subjects makes it MUCH easier to carry on a conversation.
It’s very frustrating when you’re talking to somebody that has so much to say, and so much that they can contribute to a project, but they don’t have the ability to express it. You can tell that they’re racking their brain, but just can’t find the words. It’s not a lack of intelligence, it’s a lack of communication skills. Those are the people I try the hardest to encourage to take that next step.

33 Ayden October 6, 2012 at 5:34 am

Good post! I’m surrounded by a lot of writers who don’t know how to ‘Cater their Vocabulary to their Crowd’. Or just won’tfor the sake of pretension.
I will definitely use these steps to build my vocabulary!

34 A6 October 6, 2012 at 8:43 pm

Superb post Brett and Kay. It’s interesting (and ironic) that you would bring up the “Autobiography of Malcolm X” as an example here. That book single-handedly changed my life as I’m now writing this post and glancing over at my second college degree. “Politics” aside, I can think of no other man who had such a strong command of the English language and more importantly; the uncanny ability to convey exactly what he wanted to say. Malcolm X was so prolific at the art of oration that he was invited to speak at Oxford University (amongst other places.) This is by all accounts a rather biased opinion but I’m willing to take the heat in this instance.
Keep up the good work!

35 Dan October 8, 2012 at 8:43 am

Well, I can say that my speech is full of emotions more that meanings, and I have hard time expressing my real thoughts… But I can’t say that everything is either awesome, either stupid… I have a lot of opinions about things around me … I just can’t express well… Though thanks for your post … I think It will help a lot

36 Nate October 9, 2012 at 10:39 pm

I find that my Kindle is very useful for learning new vocabulary. I have the touch variety, so a simple tap on the screen reveals the definition of almost any unknown word. It’s quickly becoming my favorite way to read and I would recommend it to anyone.

37 Jack October 11, 2012 at 12:35 am

Also good for learning a foreign language! If you are over 12, I sugget getting a coach to improve your pronounciation.

38 Philip October 12, 2012 at 10:16 am

May I offer a few practical tips?

Read, read, read, read, read. Those of you who ask for reading suggestions may find the AoM Essential Library to be a helpful list. Indeed, the quality of the literature, not the quantity, one consumes ought to hold primacy of place.

Never read without a pencil or pen. While reading great (an example of an overused word which I use very specifically here) works, mark interesting words and phrases, and comment to yourself, or to the author, in the margins. I make a list of unknown words on a blank page at the back of a book, include the page number and study these. Of course, use separate paper if you take advantage of the often disregarded cornerstone of western civilization: the library!

39 Aaron Daniel Williams October 14, 2012 at 10:30 am

I really agree with a lot of these points. Ever since I started my own blog, I have spent a lot more time researching, reading, and writing. In performing these practices, my vocabulary has become much more robust. I have even started using an online dictionary when I want to use a word but am unsure of its context. I may need to take a hint from this post and start a vocabulary notebook, that sounds like such a great idea for tangible study. This is a valuable skill to have when conveying a message in written and oral form. Thanks for the post and pointers!

40 St. Vital Kid October 15, 2012 at 3:36 pm

I teach a course called “Introduction to Broadcast Announcing” to adult learners at the private vocational school where I’m employed. Students at our institution range in age from 18 to 45. In the course, I exhort the students to become “students of language” if they intend to earn their living by speaking into a microphone, or by writing words for others to speak on the air. I plan to read several salient passages from this excellent article in class at my earliest opportunity. The other article referenced on eliminating fillers and verbal tics is another that will come in handy I’m sure. Thanks again to Brett and Kate for sharing the fruits of all your reading, researching and writing!

41 Jake October 16, 2012 at 11:59 am

Bloviation. I had to look that word up because it caught my eye and I had a little chuckle at what Wikipedia said. Most of the time, Wikipedia articles are a little vague about describing something or maybe it’s just the things I look at. Thermodynamics, heavy water, reverse osmosis and all that. Nope, not bloviation. “…originated in Ohio and used by Warren G. Harding….” I expected another vague explanation, or origination in Ancient Greek or Egypt and translated but I got blunt truth and I had a good laugh.

By the way, no offense intended but Jim Collins’ post is a great example.

42 Tekena Travis October 18, 2012 at 9:31 am

This is a real eye opener. I’ve been trying this on and off for a little while but I didn’t think it could been so powerfully connected to long term vocabulary. I’ll be more vigilant about using the new words and keeping up with them. I’ve even been strictly argus-eyed viewing this article, every new word was copied down into my regular journal but I’ve got a few other composition books I can use too.

43 moddalSatti October 19, 2012 at 6:38 pm

or when you use Google chrome or Firefox there are plenty of plug-ins available so you can double click a fancy works and voila..the meaning/usage pops out. That’s how i roll anyways.

44 Arman October 21, 2012 at 6:38 am

Great topic. However, I am not as old as most of the people who have commented here. Therefor instead of praising you, I have a few question. Firstly I am a trilingual male who speaks Russian and Armenian on top of English. When I was a bit younger still in college I used to used word that were common word however when ever I used it around my friend I would have to end up defining the word for them because it was too big for them to comprehend. As time passed I got tired of explaining what everything meant and dumbed down my vocabulary, and now I find myself forgetting the word that I already knew. Since I speak 3 languages, a lot of times I find myself searching for a word because I either have the Russian version in my head or the Armenian. So my questions are, how should I maintain the vocabulary I have without forgetting then because am surrounded by vocabulary challenged people? And secondly since Russian and Armenian are richer languages then English what can I do to remember the English word rather then rack my brain searching to the english equivalent.

45 josh October 25, 2012 at 12:17 am

One of my high school English teachers had an interesting game he showed us students. He would grab a dictionary and open it to any page, then he would read each word and state its definition. If he could not say the meaning of the word he would read the definition a couple of times through, remembering it as best he could then flip to a new page and start anew.

46 Jacob Lynn November 2, 2012 at 5:29 pm

Prior to reading your article, I successfully used—and continue to use—a similar pattern; it at least corroborates your apposite recommendations. In addition to your outline, I recommend studying logic, rhetoric, and Latin—three subjects nonpareil in motivating one’s study of grammar and vocabulary. Memorizing and applying every rule in Strunk and White’s masterwork, The Elements of Style, sways every spoken and written word to the better one. Also, Merriam-Webster freely offers their dictionary app in the Andriod and Apple marketplace; the greatest feature is the ‘Synonym Discussion’, and it is indispensible for developing a practical and nice vocabulary.

Kudos on the apropos article!

Warmest regards,


47 Brian November 3, 2012 at 12:50 pm

Great Post! I would have to say reading and writing down words you’re unfamiliar with is the most effective way to expand your vocabulary. One step closer to a living life to full potential and expressing yourself to the best of your abilities.

48 Tajmeerah December 4, 2012 at 6:03 pm

Thank you. I am an African American and where I live the black think that being smart is boring. So they have inspired me to get my education and be able to pronouce, spell, and know what a big word means. The grade im in, we have only two accelerated classes, and i am in one of them. Out of the whole grade their are only 4 black in an accelerated class im one of them.
I will think my mom for helping me get there. She is educated, and have work at a prison (made good money), now she owns her own business, and we live in a big house with a lot of cars, and i am able to be in whatever i want cause we have the money. She is my role model, and since she have stressed to me about how important and education is, now every time i bring home a progress report im in the 90s.It also is where i love to learn new things, so im not in high school yet but i am about to learn spanish and french early.

49 Greg March 7, 2013 at 6:06 am

Just wanted you guys to know that your post has featured on my blog as one of the best blogs for marketers that was read in January… best strategy blog posts from around the web –

50 shreya March 9, 2013 at 12:29 am

this article will help me a lot to build my vocabulary . It will also help me to use the words appropriately.

51 danush arakkonam April 3, 2013 at 8:45 am

This is very interesting that I somewhat learn vocabulary TO SPEAK FLUENTLY . I thank my uncle because he introduced this website.

52 awede May 3, 2013 at 5:38 am

I don’t have words for how great your post is!

53 charles August 14, 2013 at 7:11 am

At the age of 70, I hope it’s not to late to become more explicit with my speaking.

54 Dutch October 4, 2013 at 6:39 am

Here’s my favorite quick-fix for a bigger and better vocab. It’s Merriam Webster’s word-of-the-day (link below). I registered my work email, so I read one every day as I’m settling in. I read the whole thing to get a better understanding, feel for etymology, and a reminder of a recent word, so I retain more.

55 grant October 6, 2013 at 4:04 am

I’m a big fan of’s “word of the day”. Great words neatly packaged and delivered to your in-box every day. I strongly recommend it.

56 kid swak October 6, 2013 at 8:10 am

I’ve really tried on developing my vocabulary but i find difficulties doing so. Don’t know if someone here can help to email me on some steps i need to intake.. ’cause it really started from the incept when i was less focused..!

57 wilson October 10, 2013 at 10:26 am

Thanks, this really changed my view on learning vocabs in English class. Good work mate, keep writing articles like this.

58 Jill Brennan October 21, 2013 at 5:38 am

I am a Speech and Language Therapist working in schools for the NHS in Central London. I am going to use this fantastic article to explain to a group of Year 11 boys with SEN just why it is so important for them to build their vocabularies. I think it’s important to include a really thorough explanation of why they’re being taught new skills, to avoid the “I’m not bothered” response. Really love the design and the video you included was hilarious but really effective. Thanks!!

59 Dr Focab January 10, 2014 at 5:43 am

I find this game very useful for vocab building and it’s free!

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