Here is a list of practical vocabulary words that
will enable you to read with better understanding and write with
greater accuracy. Unlike lists that emphasize strange and impressive
words that few people actually use, this list emphasizes words that are
useful for your functional vocabulary. For your convenience, each word
has been linked to definitions at Dictionary.com. At the end of the
list are some tips for building your vocabulary.
How did I choose these words? During the course of
getting my degrees in English, I read a lot of books and articles as
the necessary part of writing research papers and my dissertation. I
paid attention to the words the writers used. Then during many years of
teaching undergraduates how to research, think, and write, I helped my
students find effectiveness through word choice. In addition to these
life-experience sources, I consulted numerous SAT, LSAT, MCAT, GRE, and
other test prep books to see what words they recommended. And, finally,
I looked at a few "build your vocabulary" books. This last source
encouraged me to produce this list, because those books were lacking
practicality, in my view.
Shades and Degrees of Meaning. It has been said that no two words mean exactly the same thing--that synonyms are words that mean only approximately the same thing. At the heart of this claim is the truth that words of similar meaning allow the user to express shades of meaning. Think, for example, how many words express shades of brown: tan, sand, beige, champagne, ecru, taupe. Or suppose someone buys you an iPod or some other mp3 player. You might describe yourself as happy, pleased, joyful, or thrilled. But now suppose someone buys you a new car, such as a sporty red convertible. Now you might describe yourself as ecstatic or enraptured or exhilirated. You need to have words that all mean happiness to some degree, but that allow shades or degrees of meaning. Otherwise, you would be stuck with "a little happy," "very happy," "extremely happy."
Exactness of Meaning. Having just the right word that closely expresses your meaning enables you to communicate more clearly. Was the smell an odor, an aroma, a stink? Just saying, "There was a smell in the room," doesn't provide an indication of how you reacted to it. Was it a good or bad smell? Check a synonym dictionary: smell ranges from fragrance to stench, including scent, odor, redolence, bouquet, malodorousness, fetid, and so on. Each word provides a more exact descriptor than merely the word smell.
Nuance. Words have shades
meaning (denotations) together with connotations. A denotation is the
formal definition of a word: "A snake is a cylindrical animal that
slithers along the ground." A connotation is the emotional quality that
a word has gained over time. The connotation of snake is a horrible,
slimy, fearful animal. Connotation and denotation work together to
construct meaning and allow a writer to create the nuances of
meaning--the slight differences--that create the impact of writing. For
example, is Jane skinny, thin, or slender? All three words have similar
denotative qualities, but if you asked Jane, no doubt she'd prefer to
be called slender rather than skinny.
Clarification of a concept. Sometimes a single word does not present the exact idea you have in mind. One way to clarify what you are thinking is to use more than one word--here again we touch on synonmys that are approximate in meaning--to describe the idea. Each time you refer to the idea or thing with a different word, your reader's conception of it gets more specific and clearer. Jane is obstreporous. Is she also implacable when something goes wrong? At least she doesn't grow acrimonious when we disagree.
How Many Words
Should You Know? Estimates of a person's working vocabulary vary
widely, but it seems that most people use only about 2,000 to 3,000
different words. A college graduate might use 5,000 to 6,000, while
both those with and without a college degree can recognize and
understand at least twice as many words as they normally use. Imagine,
then, how much of an addition 1,062 more words will be to a working
vocabulary of 2,000 to 3,000 or even to a
words-recognized-and-understood vocabulary of twice that.
Learn creatively! See Creative
Ways to Learn Vocabulary Words. Fun!
Then test your vocabulary with the DO DOT HOT word game.
A few years ago, I conducted some computer analyses of literary works to learn more about the vocabulary of various writers. The table below shows the number of words in each work, the vocabulary of the work (that is, the total number of different words used), and the number of words used only once in the work.
|Author and Work||Total Words in Work||Total Different Words
(Vocabulary or V)
|Words Used Only Once
Pride and Prejudice
Red Badge of Courage
Other Tools for Writers
Copyright 1999, 2008, 2011 by Robert Harris | How to cite this page
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