Building Vocabulary; Study, Practice Help Average Person Use the Right Words to Communicate

Article excerpt

Byline: Shelley Widhalm, THE WASHINGTON TIMES

The dozens of words circled in Visvas Patel's dictionary are a testimony to his expanding vocabulary.

The Laurel man tries to learn 10 new words a day through his reading (he likes to look up any unfamiliar words in his dictionary and circle them), his conversations and by using online vocabulary sites that provide word definitions and vocabulary quizzes.

"It really helps if you're talking to people," Mr. Patel says. "These words you're learning will pop into your mind and be [what] you want to use to convey your message."

Improving vocabulary skills takes time and effort and is not for the wordmonger (a careless user of language), or those who tend to get carried away with wordage (an excessive number of words) to get a message across.

"What I found is there is no cram course for improving your vocabulary," says Anu Garg, founder of, an online community of 600,000 linguaphiles (word lovers) that is celebrating its duodecennial (12th anniversary) this year. "What really works is to digest bite-size chunks a little bit at a time. Over a year, acquiring a few hundred words is impressive."

The number of words in the average adult's vocabulary is difficult to estimate, since some words can be used as nouns, verbs and adjectives, Mr. Garg says, adding the average vocabulary has been estimated at 20,000 and 30,000 words.

"One thing is for sure, the average vocabulary is going down," Mr. Garg says. "More and more people are getting their information from TV, for example. Fewer and fewer people are reading newspapers and books. There's a little bit of dumbing down going on. People are short of time. They want to write something people can grasp quickly and move on."

Even so, there is a variety of ways to improve vocabulary, such as by reading, using a dictionary to look up unfamiliar words, doing crossword puzzles and word games, and learning a word a day through Web sites, flip calendars and vocabulary-building books. (Try "The Words You Should Know: 1,200 Essential Words Every Educated Person Should Be Able to Use and Define," by David Olsen and "Word Smart: Building an Educated Vocabulary," by Adam Robinson.), based in Seattle, provides a daily electronic newsletter called A.Word.A.Day with a vocabulary word and its definition, pronunciation and etymology (what Mr. Garg calls a word's biography), along with usage examples.

"Words are the currency of human discourse. No matter what you do, you can't do it without words," Mr. Garg says.

The main way most people expand their vocabulary is through reading, speaking and using the language, and not by memorizing vocabulary lists, says Brian O'Reilly, executive director of SAT (Scholastic Assessment Test) Information Services in New York City.

"Vocabulary building is done by reading, and reading widely," Mr. O'Reilly says.

Readers, he says, learn new words by seeing them in the context of written material and encountering them often enough to learn their definitions. …