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Columns on vocabulary

A good vocabulary will make you a better writer
First published March 5, 1999

Expand your vocabulary to communicate
First published February 19, 2007

Use precise vocabulary to avoid cliches and wordiness
First published January 15, 2005

Broad vocabulary complements analytical writing
First published November 3, 1995

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: March 5, 1999

A good vocabulary will make you a better writer

By Stephen Wilbers

How good is your vocabulary?

Here’s a little test. In the sentences below, replace the overused, nondescript words with more precise and colorful words. Try reading the sentences out loud. Note their lack of emphasis and precision. Search your memory for better words.

1. Her sincerity made her a believable witness.

2. I find your offer interesting/attractive.

3. Unless there are moderating circumstances, I will have to end your contract.

4. Your claim that you want to help is not sincere.

How do your choices compare with the original words? If your words are more precise and colorful, you have a relatively good vocabulary. If your words are equally vague and bland, you have a relatively weak vocabulary. You can click on each word in question to see a possible alternative. Note that none of the words I suggest as a better alternative is an exact synonym for the original, but that, depending on the context, all convey meaning with more precision and emphasis.

Whether your vocabulary is weak or strong, here’s how you can improve it:

Read and listen. The secret to building your vocabulary is to pay attention. Note the vocabulary of writers who choose their words carefully. Pay attention to the language of speakers who use their words skillfully. Both sources offer certain advantages. To see a word in print reinforces your visual memory; to hear it pronounced aids your aural memory.

Listen and watch for words you don’t know. Be on the lookout for words whose sound you like. Collect words you think might be useful to you, words that suit your style and personality. Learn the vocabulary of your field or profession.

Look up words you don’t know. Use a good dictionary. (See Recommended resources and reading.) Learn not only their denotation (literal meaning) but their connotation (mood and feelings). Consider the context in which you encountered them.

Move words from your comprehensive to your expressive vocabulary. You possess two sets of vocabulary: a larger set of words you understand (at least vaguely) and a smaller set you use to express yourself. To move words from your larger comprehensive (or passive) vocabulary to your smaller expressive (or active) vocabulary, you need to know three things: how to define, pronounce, and spell them. Say the words you are trying to learn out loud. Practice using them.

Maintain a list of words you want to remember. To fix words in your long-term memory, write them down. If you care to take the time, note their definitions. Better yet, write down the sentences in which you heard them. Review your list at least once a week. See how many words you can write or recite from memory.

You’ll know that a word has become part of your expressive vocabulary when, in seeking to articulate a thought, the word pops into your mind or occurs to you without effort. When that happens, move the word from your weekly to your monthly review list, and give yourself a pat on the back: With each addition to your vocabulary not only are you speaking and writing more precisely, but you are thinking more precisely.

Ready for another test?

1. A good way to improve your argument is to support your assertions with specific examples.

2. A successful product launch involves introducing the right idea at the right time.

3. Your optimism may be without good reason.

4. Although not without fault, our CEO has provided good leadership.

5. Her reputation is still good, despite the false allegations.

6. Your argument is good.

First published February 19, 2007

Expand your vocabulary to communicate

By Stephen Wilbers

Our words are close to our hearts. We use them to convey our thoughts and ideas, values and concerns.

Sometimes we use our words just to show off, as in "I deem it imperative that we commence work on this project at our earliest possible convenience" when all we mean is "Let’s get to work on this project."

And sometimes we can’t think of the precise word that captures our thought, as in "His explanation for failing to file his report is hard to believe" when we might have said, "His explanation for failing to file his report is implausible."

Having a broad range of words at our command, and knowing how and when to use them, is key to effective communication.

Are you satisfied with your vocabulary? Would you like to improve it?

Reading, of course, is one of the better ways to learn new words, especially if you take the time to look up the ones you don’t know. Simply being inquisitive also helps. If you listen attentively to the spoken or written language of articulate people, you’ll gradually expand your vocabulary.

Another approach is to do vocabulary exercises like the ones I post weekly on my website. Want to try a few?

Fill in the blanks in the sentences below with words that capture the intended meaning more precisely than the words in square brackets:

"My boss, who is capable and organized, is [good] at managing multiple deadlines."

"You can’t have effective writing without careful editing. The two are [solidly] linked."

"It’s one thing to make a minor mistake now and then, but to misspell your boss’s name is an [really serious] error."

Did the following words occur to you: adept, inextricably, and egregious? Other words might serve as well, but do you know those three? Can you use them comfortably – that is, can you spell, define, and pronounce them?

Here are another three sentences:

"I’ve been working on this report for a week, so I want you to give it more than a [quick or superficial] look."

"His harsh views seem [not to fit] with his friendly manner."

"My colleague works hard and efficiently; his output is [really awesome]."

Do you know the words, cursory, incongruous, and prodigious?

One more set:

"To say you’re sorry in a way that casts blame elsewhere is [insincere or calculating]."

"His platform contains many points, but three – social justice, environmental integrity, and economic prosperity – are [prominent]."

"We drove all over town running errands on our way to the airport. In the future I would prefer a less [roundabout] route."

Did the following words occur to you: disingenuous, salient, and circuitous?

It’s not that big words are always better. If you have a simple thought to express, use a simple word to express it. Or as Garrison Keillor once said, "Why would you put a five-dollar haircut on a ten-cent head?"

But for more complex thoughts, a more expansive vocabulary will help you capture your intended meaning.

First published February 19, 2007

Use precise vocabulary to avoid cliches and wordiness

By Stephen Wilbers

Let’s play a little game. I’ll give you three sentences. The first illustrates wordiness, the second plain or cliched word choice, and the third precise command of language. Here goes:

1. It goes without saying that the concern that has been expressed in regard to a decline in the quality of customer service is unquestionably nebulous and without merit.

2. The concern over customer service is a bunch of hot air.

3. The concern over customer service is unwarranted.

Now, to make it more interesting, I’ll change the order, and you identify which sentence illustrates which style (wordy, plain/cliched, or precise). Ready?

1. You shouldn’t have let the cat out of the bag without talking to me beforehand.

2. You should have conferred with me before announcing your retirement.

3. To announce your impending retirement prior to dialoguing with me was both ill-advised and precipitous.

Do you agree that the sentences were plain/cliched, precise, and wordy, in that order?

Those examples are obvious. Now identify the three different styles in sentences whose characteristics are less pronounced. Which is wordy, plain/cliched, and precise?

1. The survey results are skewed.

2. The survey results are obviously specious.

3. The survey results are no good.

What do you say? Precise, wordy, and plain/cliched?

The point is that effective communication depends on precise word choice, and precise word choice depends on vocabulary.

To have many words rather than just a few to choose from enables you to express your thoughts clearly and to convey nuance or shades of meaning. To have only a limited command of language relegates you to stating things so simply that you may find it difficult to convey complex ideas.

But there’s a danger in possessing a broad vocabulary: You might be tempted to use language to show off or impress rather than to convey thoughts with the words that are appropriate for the occasion and the audience.

So first you must learn the word; then you must know when to use it.

Here’s how to improve your vocabulary:

Use a dictionary. It requires discipline to take the time to look up words and to learn how to spell and pronounce them, but it’s the best way to expand your vocabulary. I recommend you use two kinds of dictionaries: a hard-copy dictionary and an online dictionary marked as a "favorite" on your browser. You’ll find my suggestions for hard-copy dictionaries at Resources.

Read. There’s no substitute. If you hang out exclusively with people with limited vocabularies, you will have a limited vocabulary. If you spend time with people with broad vocabularies, you will learn their language (as well as their more interesting and varied sentence structures).

Be systematic. If you’re serious about improving your vocabulary, set a specific goal. I recommend you do three things: learn one new word a week, maintain a list, and review your list monthly.

But don’t forget: First you must apprehend the word; then you must be cognizant of when to utilize it.
 

First published by the Minneapolis Star Tribune: November 3, 1995

Broad vocabulary complements analytical writing

By Stephen Wilbers

Use plain language. Write simply. Avoid fancy words. The No. 1 attribute of effective business writing is clarity – plain and simple.

But, I am often asked, if plain, simple words are the only ones business writers should use, why bother to develop a broad vocabulary? What’s the point of learning big words if only little ones are acceptable?

Ah, the business writer’s dilemma. How does one balance the need to be understood by readers at all levels of ability against the desire to use language that most precisely captures the intended meaning? Doesn’t dumbing down the language also entail dumbing down the complexity and nuance of thought?

In many instances, of course, choosing between simple language and precise language is a false dilemma. The simpler words are the more precise words. Compare “It is imperative that we effectuate a resolution to this dilemma” with “We need to resolve this dilemma.” Here, the simpler language is not only more precise but also more succinct and emphatic.

But that leaves us with the suggestion that simpler language is necessarily better than complex language – and that leads to the unsettling notion that over time we as a society and a civilization might improve our discourse by simplifying it.

So, when is complex language preferable to simple language? If one mark of a good communicator is a broad vocabulary, when does the communicator get to use all the big words he or she has gathered so assiduously?

The answer has to do with the three basic components of all communication: purpose, audience, and material. The complexity of your language (or the breadth of your expressive range) depends on the nature of your objective, the sophistication of your reader, and the complexity of your material. An e-mail message rescheduling a meeting obviously calls for simpler language than a proposal advocating a new marketing strategy or a position paper calling for technical refinements in the dephosphorization of taconite pellets.

One type of writing in which a broad and varied vocabulary is undeniably advantageous is analytical or critical writing. If you ever do this type of writing, you might find the following words helpful. It’s not that the words themselves will carry your argument, but that if you learn to use them well, they will enable you to think and write with more precision, depth, and cogency.

Vocabulary counts.

Expanding your analytical vocabulary

Vocabulary of process:

Logic/illogic; analysis; evidence & proof

Verbs / Adjectives / Nouns

   adverse, adversarial

   ancillary

   a priori

   assume, assumed, assumption

   attribute, attributed, attribute

   bolster

   cause, causal, cause

   conversant

   cognizant

   converse

   correlate, correlated, correlation

   corroborate, corroborated,
      corroboration

   deduce, deductive

   delve

   derive, derived, derivation
 

   devise

   disabuse, disabused

   etymology

   entail

   expound

   indicate, indicative

   infer, inference

   induce, inductive

   insinuate, insinuated

   invert, inverted, inverse

   nullify

   obtain, obtainable

   notice, noticed/unnoticed

   preempt, preempted

   presume, presumptuous,
     presumption;
 

   premise

   promulgate, promulgation

   reason, reasoned/
     unreasoned, reasoning

   rebut, rebuttal

   rectify, rectified

   refute, refuted, refutation

   scrutinize, scrutinized,
     scrutiny

   speculate, speculation

   substantiate, substantiated/
     unsubstantiated

   verify, verified

   warrant, warranted/
     unwarranted

 

 

Vocabulary of evaluation:

Effectiveness/ineffectiveness; relevance/irrelevance; validity/invalidity; precision/imprecision

Verbs / Adjectives / Nouns

   applicable/inapplicable,
     applicability/inapplicability

   absolute

   commend, commendable

   compel, compelling

   conclude, conclusive/inconclusive

   cogent

   credible

   credence

   cumbersome

   dearth

   debunk
 

   diminish, diminished

   entice, enticing, enticement

   erroneous

   exemplary

   fallacious

   fallible/infallible, fallibility/
     infallibility

   falsify, false

   flawed, flaw

   fathom, fathomable/unfathomable

   generalize, generalized,
     generalization

   instrumental

   ludicrous

   meritorious

   merit

   misguided

   nebulous

   onerous, onerousness

   pertain, pertinent, pertinence

   plausible

   prudent, prudence

   question, questionable,
     question

   rigorous, rigor
 

 

 

 

 

 

Answers to exercises

 

 

 

 

credible

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enticing

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extenuating, mitigating

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terminate

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disingenuous, specious, spurious

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bolster

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substantiate

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entails

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unwarranted, unjustified, groundless

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infallible

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exemplary, admirable

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undiminished, unblemished, untarnished

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specious, unsubstantiated, spurious, ludicrous

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compelling

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Link to Merriam-Webster OnLine
includes vocabulary-building exercises