I admit it! I am a word geek. I love learning new words, picking them apart and figuring out their pronunciation, roots, etymology, cultural context and history. Never mind that I am a native speaker (as are you, probably), the English language is just so big and damn wordy that we will always remain its students. Although it’s not really practical to count how many words there are, it has arguably the largest vocabulary of all languages.
As users of English, and in particular as writers, we should know as many words as we can. It’s not to say that we should cram strange adjectives in where they don’t belong, but it’s good to write with that knowledge. Imagine if you had a car that you made sure was as well maintained as possible. It has a powerful engine, a sleek build, smooth gears and precise steering. Sure, you may not want to stomp on the accelerator as hard as possible, but just knowing what the machine can do will help you drive better and make more confident movements on the road.
So, here are a few of the things I do to make sure that no matter what, I keep improving my vocabulary:
Ask What It Means
Have you ever been in conversation with someone, they use a word you don’t know and you just make your best guess from the context what they’re saying and move on? If you can, try to stop and ask what the word means. It might feel embarrassing at first, but the number or words I’ve learned over the years just by doing this more than makes up for it. And it makes you a better communicator!
Look It Up
Get a dictionary and keep it close by. It’s worth paying – as handy as dictionary.com can be, it just doesn’t have the same level of information as one of the longer-standing more well regarded ones. By paying for the right dictionary you get access to a much better level of information and you can make sure it’s tailored to your style of English. I speak British English, so I use the good old Oxford English Dictionary. I paid for an app version that I can use on my phone or computers at any time, and although it seemed like a lot of money at the time, I geekishly use it to look up words pretty much every day.
Read, Read, Read
Read a lot! And when you find a word you don’t know, don’t just rely on context, look it up! An eReader is especially awesome for this purpose. I own a Kobo Glo, which has a built-in dictionary, and when I want to look up a word I just touch it, and its definition appears.
Play Word Games
I’ve written a post already about some word games I love, which you can find here. I love games in general, both board and video, and I’ll take any chance I get to flex my linguistic muscle while playing. Playing is the best way to learn!
Look It Up Anyway
It’s amazing how many times I think I know a word, but then it gives me a weird sideways look, so just for the sake of it I look it up anyway and find out there was something I didn’t know about it. I didn’t know how to say it or make its plural, or I had a completely fabricated impression of what it meant. For example, I used to say autonomous a lot when I meant automatic.
I hope you find these tips useful, and happy word hunting!
For more on why you can’t count the number of words in a language, see this fascinating column from The Economist.