In vocabulary, bigger is not better

In vocabulary, bigger is not better
June 30, 2016 Beth Nyland

“Research and write a biography of a person you admire.” Unintimidated, my fourth-grade classmates and I embraced the assignment. We named and studied our heroes, both living and long-gone. One picked Muhammad Ali. Another wrote about Florence Nightingale. Quite a few boys fixated on Walter Payton.

I chose Noah Webster. Word teacher. Language lover. Dictionary creator.

So, ask me if I value vocabulary. I do. I’m a total word nerd.

Now, ask me if you should build your vocabulary.

I’ll hesitate. I’ll question your motives.

A bigger vocabulary is not necessarily better.

If your goal is to become a better communicator, learning more words may not be your best bet. Instead, invest time and energy in using plain, ordinary words—the ones we all know and understand—for greatest impact. That means:

  • Developing well-reasoned ideas, so what you say generates meaningful results.
  • Appreciating your audience and the moment, so you say the right thing at the right time in the right way.
  • Prioritizing and organizing information, so you present the right points in the right order.
  • Cutting all the fluff, so you respect your audience’s interests and time.
  • Mastering spelling and grammar and style, so you don’t make embarrassing mistakes that distract from your message.

Good communication is not about knowing a lot of words. It’s about knowing the right words—and using them well.

But what if you do need more words?

All that said, you may be justified in wanting to expand your vocabulary. Here are five good reasons to learn new words:

  1. You are a newcomer. If you’re starting a career, changing industries, or busting into a new field, learning the lingo will help you understand what others are saying and step into conversations without stumbling.
  2. You believe your vocabulary is a shortcoming. Confidence is everything. If you feel short on words, then you may be reluctant to join conversations—written or spoken. If you believe you lack the words to make a positive impression, building vocabulary may give you the courage to be a more active communicator.
  3. You’re using words incorrectly. If anyone has ever looked at you quizzically and said, “I don’t think that word means what you think it does,” that’s a strong signal you should be pulling up to check your understanding.
  4. You’re writing your resume. This crucial document calls for active phrases that summarize your experience and impact. Search your mind (or for more descriptive, distinctive words than “contributed,” “led,” “managed,” and “responsible for.”
  5. You are genuinely curious. If you love to learn, simply for the sake of learning, go for it! Explore origins and definitions and pronunciations, even if you never use those words in conversation. You’ll become a better reader, maybe win a few trivia games, and pick up quirky facts you can drop in conversation.

How does your vocabulary grow?

Are you convinced that knowing more words will make you smarter, cooler, happier? You could read a page a day in a dictionary, or visit Merriam-Webster for the word of the day. Or you could try some of these techniques: 

Read within your field.

Over dinner the other night, one of my friends recalled her first assignment doing PR for a client in the tech industry—a field where she had zero experience. To get up to speed, she read everything she could get her hands on: trade journals, news articles, product manuals. The more she immersed herself in the client’s language, the more confident and better equipped she was to do her job.

Read outside your field.

Reading just what’s published in your industry—worse yet, in your organization—is a sure way to stunt your vocabulary’s growth. Lulled by the sound of that insider’s voice, you may become so accustomed to jargon that you fail to choose words that truly say what you mean. To expand your vocabulary, expand the range of what you read. Read fiction. Read poetry. Read The New Yorker.

Watch TED Talks.

TED speakers’ messages are carefully planned and rehearsed under the guidance of a coach who helps perfect not just pacing and gestures and visuals, but the very words. These carefully crafted talks show how strong speakers use vocabulary to make big ideas approachable.

Listen to podcasts.

My favorite podcast programs have nothing to do with vocabulary. I love Fresh Air, Nerdist, Here’s the Thing, and The New Yorker Radio Hour—all of which are interview formats, so I get to hear how masterful hosts set up and guide a conversation, and how their guests respond. If you’re looking for a podcast with clearer ties to vocabulary and communication, you might try Grammar Girl, All Ears English, or A Way with Words.

Play games.

Go old school with table games like Scrabble, Boggle, or Balderdash. Or make it mobile with Words with Friends, WordStreak, or Letterpress. The more you play, the more words you will see and use.


Set a timer for three minutes, and write until time’s up. You can write whatever comes to mind, describe what you see or smell or hear, or respond to a random prompt. You may not be learning new words, but you’ll practice using your own storehouse of words at a moment’s notice—mastering the vocabulary you already have.

* * * * *

As your vocabulary grows, so must your sensitivity to your audience. Remember: Effective communication depends not on knowing a lot of words, but on choosing the right words that make sense to the people you want to reach.

Photo credit: liz west via flickr


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