Before we begin, let’s challenge the notion that people who use “big words” do so to impress or belittle other people. While it’s true that some people rely on their vocabularies to elicit those responses out of insecurity, it’s also true thatï¿½sometimes those so-called big words are the most deft, purposeful choices for a situation.ï¿½ Similar words are endowed with subtly different meanings. The art of accumulating and using a large vocabulary turns on recognizing and employing those differences.
For instance, the words “crotchety,” “cantankerous,” and “petulant” are rough synonyms, but they do possess different connotations. If you’re communicating a nuanced thought or feeling about someone who is irritable and contrary, you have choices available to you! And the more robust your vocabulary, the more choices you have for conveying precisely what you mean.
Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #1
Studying lists of words is not the way. Spending time at the neighborhood Starbucks, I see plenty of university students preparing for the verbal section of the GRE with storebought word lists, fastidiously prepared flash cards, and other trappings of standardized test mania best served alongside a venti mocha. While not entirely futile, this list-based approach to vocabulary building is misguided at best. Words exist in contexts, and studying words divorced from their contexts makes those words harder to learn – and worse yet, harder to use later. (Think of it this way: if you want to improve your racquetball serve, you’ll probably want to position yourself in an actual racquetball court, right?).
Effective Ways to Improve Vocabulary: Tip #2
Read a lot. The experience of encountering unfamiliar words in print is remarkably instructive. First, because you’re already engaged in reading something, you are arguably more motivated to learn a new word so that you better understand what you’re voluntarily reading. Second, you have come across the word organically rather than artificially (i.e. in a vocabulary list). You’ll pick up new words – and clarify meanings of words already in your toolkit – by exposing yourself to them in their, shall we say, natural habitat. The context will enrich your attempt to build a better vocabulary.