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Robert’s Awesome Tricks for Improving your Vocabulary

In school  I amassed quite a   vocabulary. I was reading voraciously and preparing for the SAT and GRE tests. In high school I had studied Latin, so it was easy for me to recognize Latin etymology.  After graduating,  I worked  for the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation, an educational  testing foundation that  gave people career advice and coached people to work on improving their vocabulary.  When I worked there, I used to give a 15-20 minute “exhortation” about the benefits of improving English vocabulary.   Here were some of the  key points in this exhortation:

  • According to internal surveys, the profession with the highest vocabulary was not editor or college professor, but business executive. My colleagues at Johnson O’Connor came up with various  theories to explain this:  1)executives  rise in their field because they were better able to communicate their ideas to peers; 2)execs are incredibly well-read people and vocabulary is a sign of that; 3)execs need  a precise understanding of what their underlings are telling them, and vocabulary helps that;  4)having a strong vocabulary makes it easier to acquire new knowledge, and that is a key part of being a good manager; 5)having a strong vocabulary is  a result of  a strong educational background and signals to others that you are educated  (regardless of whether it was actually true);  and 6)a strong vocabulary was a sign that a person has a lot of outside interests and a healthy curiosity about the world.   We never  agreed on which explanation was more valid, but the correlation was undeniable.
  • Contrary to what one might think, hard  words are everywhere; you don’t have to read Melville or Dickens to encounter them.   At Johnson O’Connor I had a trick where I would ask the low-vocabulary student  which magazine he or she enjoyed reading.  The student  would usually mention People or Seventeen  or Time or Cosmo or Sports Illustrated, and I would pull out from a desk drawer annotated copies of whichever magazine they mentioned, with the hard words highlighted in red.   For the clients who mentioned People magazine, I always pointed out the word chanteuse in an article which nobody had heard of (unless they had studied French).   What you read doesn’t matter as much as the fact  you are noticing words you don’t know.      People are generally good at figuring out the overall meaning of a sentence without knowing the meaning of a single word. Or so they think. In fact, they may not be aware of how much meaning is being missed  until it is pointed out to them.
  • Learning new words is a onetime deal.  Yes, it requires work,  but once you get these words under your belt, it requires little effort to retain this  understanding. I used to distinguish between active vocabulary and passive vocabulary. Active vocabulary is simply the words which you are able to use freely. For me as a writer it helps to use all kinds of fancy words (words are the tools of thought), but in fact, a passive vocabulary may be sufficient for career success. I used George H.W. Bush (the father) as an example. He was famous as a bad (and awkward) communicator, but most people still  thought he was sharp. He may not have been able to use the word eleemosynary in everyday conversation, but  if one of his advisors used the word, he would know what it meant (or  make sure he found out).
  • Before you can actually learn a word, it helps to be aware of it. When reading  magazines, people merrily read past these words without  noticing them or  stopping to wonder what they meant. Often in conversation you can be oblivious to a word or even mistake it for a word that sounds the same. On Star Trek, the captain of Enterprise Captain Jean Luc Picard used to say “Belay that order.” Before I knew the meaning of belay, I just assumed that the word being said was delay. Once I realized it was an entirely different word, I looked it up and discovered it had a totally different connotation. (It does not mean delay; it means to stop indefinitely!)  Suddenly, the Star Trek dialogue had different meanings (did you notice all the nautical words being bandied about?)
  • Often words begin with a concrete meaning in a specialized subject area and  assume a more generalized  meaning only later. Let’s look at that same word belay again. In fact, belay is a specialized word used in mountain climbing which refers to fastening a rope to a stationary object like a rock and using it for security.  (Rock climbers probably know this already). One secret to learning words permanently is to learn the specialized meaning of the word in the first place; if you do, it becomes easier to understand the general ways in which it can be used (such as in Star Trek).
  • It is possible to arrange words in order of difficulty; and if you are going to start learning words, it is more effective to learn the easier words first.  (Johnson O’Connor used to rank words by difficulty and sell word books which grouped words at approximately the same level of  difficulty). Practically speaking though, this means that words you encounter in your normal day tend to be  easier to learn than random words in the dictionary. That’s why  word-of-the-day calendars or word-of-the-day emails rarely do much good. The words are usually beyond your realm of “learnability.” You can try to learn this word, but chances are that this word will not “stick.”
  • Following the premise that easier words are learned more quickly than hard words, it makes sense to pay extra  attention to words already familiar to you  than  constantly trying to add new and unfamiliar words.  It is easy to confuse familiarity with actual understanding.  Often, when you are at the verge of adding a word to your permanent vocabulary, you will still have only an approximate idea of the meaning. Perhaps  you will  know that the word staccato is a musical term,  but be unsure what specifically it refers to.   If you cannot immediately come up with a definition, it’s worthwhile to doublecheck your understanding. When a word is in the offing,  you may confuse the meaning of the word with its antonym (as is the case with stalactite and stalagmite).
  • Sometimes the same word might have multiple  (and even contradictory) connotations. One article calls  these kinds of words  bubble words  and makes the interesting point that some words may have primary, secondary and even tertiary meanings; sometimes it is insufficient simply  to  know the primary meaning of a word. Perhaps you may already know that “casuistry” refers to unsound reasoning, but you may not realize that the term has  a neutral connotation with respect to  applying principles or rules in the field of philosophy.  Or you might only  be aware of one of the two opposite meanings of the word “sanction.”   (It can mean to give official approval for something, or it can mean to threaten a penalty for disobeying a rule). Sometimes understanding the full dimensions of a word may mean appreciating the different ways it can be used in different contexts.
  • Some people have a natural ability to absorb new words like a sponge (I don’t!) But often these  human sponges simply know how to use the word as it was originally used without really knowing how to use the word in new and appropriate ways.  (This phenomenon   is reminiscent  of  the Chinese room thought experiment).
  • Similarly, some people are very good at guessing the meaning of a word or phrase in a given context. This is a valuable deductive skill, but it often  masks  the fact that the person still doesn’t know what the word itself means.  It still is  necessary to  verify the accuracy of your guess.   If you do too much guessing and not enough verifying, you may have no specific understanding of the word itself, only a familiarity with the word in a single context.  In these cases,   it could even be more difficult to learn the word’s meaning because you haven’t made any mental effort  to store it in  memory.
  • Keeping a word list or flash cards lets you  revisit  words. Without  revisiting, you don’t have a chance to test your understanding.   Most words occur rarely, and unless you have an incredible memory, it will be hard to retain this word when you encounter it  a second time. Yesterday while reading, I encountered three words blowsy, suss and biddy. I am ashamed to admit that I looked up these words for the first time 15 years ago in my Johnson O’Connor days, and I still have an incomplete understanding of what these words mean.  (I hope that mentioning them here will help me to remember them).
  • About 40% of the words I look up in the dictionary are words I’ve already  looked up.  In a way, I am just  “grading myself” to see if I really know the word.
  • Some rare words are easy to remember; other rare words are hard. Take the word callipygian. Chances are that you’ve never heard of it, but once you do, remembering it is almost never a problem.  On the other hand, some words can not sound particularly exotic (such as facultative or prolepsis) but seem practically impossible to learn (for me at least). Don’t judge a word’s difficulty merely on the basis of how exotic it sounds.
  • Watch the verbal phrases and secondary meanings of common words. One valuable thing I learned from my brilliant Albanian students was how hard  some verbal phrases (i.e., verb + preposition) can be  for nonnative speakers. Hey, they can be hard for native English speakers too. Why? Because we assume we already know them. We may know what the word “set” and “to” mean, but do we know the meaning of  set-toForcing is another word I learned which has a specific meaning in climate change science and also mathematics. I don’t pretend to understand all the subtleties of this word, but I shouldn’t assume that knowing the word “force” would help me with learning the word forcing.  Learning those secondary meanings can be just as useful as learning a word like callipygian.
  • You’d be surprised at how many words  a low-vocabulary person will know which a high-vocabulary type like myself will never have heard of.  When working at Johnson O’Connor, I remember  hearing  a low-vocabulary student drop the word  “strafing” in casual conversation.   Say what?  The student was in the military and watched a lot of WW2 movies;   this word was a common everyday word to him and he was actually shocked that I had never heard of it. Often I’ll be talking to a high school student and hear a totally  new word (from music or cinema or computers or videogaming). You don’t learn new words by listening to CEOs or writers or professors. You learn them by talking to car mechanics and florists and nurses.
  • The number of learned words grow over time. A high school person with an excellent vocabulary is generally   no match for a 35 year old with an average vocabulary.


  • I realize that books are  becoming passe, but if you look at the inside cover of my older books,  you will generally see words handwritten on the inside cover (with a page number). I usually never bothered to look up a word while reading – I didn’t want to interrupt my enjoyment – but I almost always looked up the word in a dictionary later. Sometimes I would write the meaning on the inside cover; sometimes I would transfer the word onto a word list; sometimes I would transfer the words to a flash cards (by the way, I used to write the words down on the back of old business cards and go over them in my spare time). Remember: books are meant to be written on. Feel free to circle words or write things on the front cover. Dictionaries especially. (American Heritage Dictionary is the best I know of). After you look up a word in the dictionary, always circle it. That way, if you have to look it up again, you can do find it more easily.  Aside from helping students under 16, I’ve found  portable  dictionaries to be  more frustrating than rewarding.  Update. Although I still love the American Heritage Dictionary, I found an excellent deal on a dictionary of comparable or better quality, the New Oxford American Dictionary (see this review and compare the sample pages on Amazon). AHD looks nicer, but NOAD has  better etymologies, more secondary meanings and longer definitions. Update 2: I’ve been told that the Kindle 2 includes a built-in version of NOAD. Horray!
  • Make an effort to read things from different time periods and different geographic regions. If you read any book older than 50 years, even if its language is not considered elevated or educated, it will probably contain  words which seem unusual to the contemporary reader.  Sometimes these words are just slang words which fell out of fashion. Often though, these kinds of words had concrete meanings which were more relevant or common for  that era. Sometimes this historical context can be useful to know for its own sake. But for those words which gain a general connotation over time,  knowing the original historical or geographic context of the word makes it easier to keep it in memory. For example, gilded primarily means having a falsely pleasant appearance; sugar-coated. It comes from the metallurgical term htdw covering something with a thin layer of gold.  If you remember the metallurgical meaning, it will be easier to remember the primary definition. The advice to read widely seems obvious, but it is all too easy to spend a disproportionate amount of time  reading  contemporaries and ignore what came before them. Variety of reading material may matter more than how intellectual the reading material may be.   Think about this: how often do you read books about botany? Fencing? Latin American paintings? Roman law? Southern plantations? Indian history? Electronics? Pottery? Australian folk tales? Reading one book on each topic could  do more to build your vocabulary than to read 15 novels by contemporary American novelists.
  • At the moment, I haven’t found ebook dictionaries to be useful. On the ipad, I find Wordbook XL to be moderately useful.
  • For heaven’s sake, keep a pen by your bed… or three! I can’t tell you how many words I have failed to learn simply because I was too drowsy to get out of bed and look them up. Write them down or underline them for now. Later at a more convenient time (when you’re actually alert), you can look them up and learn them.
  • Their usefulness is not obvious, but I find Visual Dictionaries to be both useful and delightful.  They let you see how something is integrated with other parts; they also let you see how one thing compares with other things (like flowers or birds or clothes or architecture). Really, when I come across a reference to a bird or flower, I just think of it generically. How much better it would be to have a specific picture in your mind. Most of the time, you can find this information online, but only if you know what you’re looking for! By the way, what’s the name of that flower with  bright red petals and a bright yellow mound in the middle? I recommend  the older  MacMillian Visual Dictionary (Hardback Only) but the more recent Merriam-Webster’s Visual Dictionary might also be good too. (I would browse through them at a good bookstore).
  • I’m of two minds about online dictionaries. Using them allows you to surf to additional material about a word. (For example, you can go to the wikipedia article about belaying and even a youtube video. For words with a specific visual meaning, you can usually see a good illustration which would be impractical to have in a print dictionary. On the other hand, web dictionaries tend to be commercial or tend to divide words into separate web pages (regardless of whether they deserve a separate web page or not). It is nice to have something you can use without needing the computer to be  on.
  • Although I’ve never actually used them, you can install plugins for your browser which allow you to right click a word and see its meaning in a popup window. (Dictionary tooltip looks particularly impressive).
  • Native English speakers learn words differently from nonnative speakers. Immigrants tend to look for words which are parallel to words in their own language, and they tend to prefer words which are common across languages.  That is why in a conversation with nonnative speakers, the type of words being used may sound  more sophisticated even though the conversation is easier to follow.  Nonnative speakers usually don’t have a good sense of which kinds of words or phrases are the most useful or common. As a result, they (unintentionally) learn lots of uncommon words and never get around to learning basic words. This is unavoidable. When learning English as a foreign language, it helps to use reading passages where the words have already been looked up and the most useful words have been identified.
  • You need to keep a  permanent record of  words you  encounter.  (As of today, I have started to keep my ongoing vocabulary  list on a separate page). I know it sounds like lot of trouble, but it makes it easier to identify problem words. Writing them down forces me to move them into my active treasury of words.  Also, whenever I revisit that page to add a word, I notice the previous words and check whether I still recall them. If you don’t have time to write them down and look them up, simply jot them down in a Google Docs document until you find the time to do so.
  • Don’t worry about using words incorrectly. It happens. I frequently discover that I have learned a word partially or even wrongly. Sure, don’t rush to use a $2 word after you discover it, but really, the public shame of misusing a word in conversation is vastly overstated.  (I am much more cautious when I write though). When writing, if the word doesn’t fit snugly into the context you need it for, chances are that either you  don’t need this word or don’t know it well enough to use it. (Yes, a simpler word is almost always better if  it conveys  what you want).
  • For learning words, reading is not that important.  Sure, everyone should read more; that increases exposure to words and makes it easier for words  to stick.  But reading itself  does not guarantee a high vocabulary. It’s more important to be curious about words around you and to verify that you actually know their meanings.   Double-checking and even triple-checking is necessary. Overconfidence is always a risk; it’s easy to convince yourself that your understanding of words is greater than it actually is.  It takes a wise man to recognize his own  ignorance.

See also: Robert Nagle’s Ongoing Word List and  English Vocabulary Resources for  (English-speaking) kids and my article Do we still need dictionaries?

Postscript: You can receive an estimate of approximately how many English words you know by taking this vocabulary  test. This test seems well-designed and has lots of data. From a blog post:

We have three main findings from this chart. The first is that while increasing your reading matters, increasing your reading of fiction, specifically, matters equally as much. That fiction reading would increase vocabulary size more than just non-fiction was one of our hypotheses — it makes sense, after all, considering that fiction tends to use a greater variety of words than non-fiction does. However, we hadn’t expected its effect to be this prominent.

The second finding is that, for people who already read “somewhat”, then for each level of “bumping up” their reading in general, or of fiction specifically, their vocabulary will be roughly 2,000 words larger. Indeed, the difference between someone who reads “somewhat” and fiction “not much”, and someone who reads “lots” and fiction “lots”, is approximately 8,000 words, regardless of age level. That’s a huge difference.

And the third finding, completely unexpected, is that the difference between those who read “somewhat” and those who read “lots” doesn’t appear to change with age — the difference at 15 years old is essentially the same difference at 60, which means that this life-long difference is already present by age 15.


it’s between the crucial ages of 4–15 where reading makes all the difference in the rate at which children increase their vocabulary. We can calculate the differences, although these should be taken as “ballpark approximations” at most, given the noisiness of the data:

Reading habits Vocabulary growth per day, ages 4–15
Reads “lots” +4.1 words/day
Reads “somewhat” +2.6 words/day
Reads “not much” +1.4 words/day

This is a fascinating finding, as it tells us that vocabulary growth is drastically affected by the amount children read. By age 15, this has resulted in a difference of 5,000–6,000 words between each level, and children who read “lots” have almost double the vocabulary of children who read “not much”. Obviously, this will affect school performance, SAT scores, and so on — and it’s a difference accumulated throughout all of childhood.

Also, there are some interesting graphs from the same vocabulary testing site.

Source: Testyourvocab.com

Source: Testyourvocab.com

{ 11 comments… add one }
  • Sarah Elkins 11/17/2009, 11:14 am

    I was excited to finally be able to use “supererogation” in a sentence (read it in a Georgette Heyer long ago), only to find out I’d had the word wrong when I double-checked the meaning just in time.

    Ickily, I think “set-to” comes from (human-instigated) dog-fighting: one “sets” the animals toward each other.

    BTW congrats on the new job (per LinkedIn)!

  • Patricia Matson 11/17/2009, 4:44 pm

    At my first editing job, I wrote the headline, “Breadmaker fills a ‘knead'” — my supervisor was appalled I had misspelled “need.” When I explained the pun, it turned out he had never encountered the word, which stunned me.

  • Robert Nagle 11/18/2009, 9:50 pm

    Supererogation…Great word! I just added it. (I knew the meaning of it of course, but it justified a second look nonetheless.

  • Ron Smith 12/1/2009, 12:16 pm

    I believe there is a word that (bascially) describes “properly using a word (in a sentance) without knowwing the exact meaning.” Would you know that word?

  • Robert Banks 2/16/2010, 3:19 pm

    You should take schmies vocabulary test.

  • Robert Nagle 2/16/2010, 5:24 pm

    Robert Banks, Thanks for that amazing link. I took the test and got a 176. I also learned lots of new words! But I guarantee you that the next time I take it, I will score a 200!

  • Robert Banks 2/27/2010, 8:42 pm

    Thanks, I also took the test. Even though it was hard, I earned a 156. Then, I looked up every word I did not know and memorized them.

  • Sarah 2/19/2013, 11:11 pm

    It’s a long shot, but Robert if you happen to come back to this article and read this I would MORE than greatly appreciate your advice.

    I’m about a year into my first job out of college and am having major struggles with my communication skills, all stemming from my small vocabulary. I’ve tried everything to fix this, from reading books (even ones from the medieval times!) to making lists of words I don’t know to looking up a word a day then actively using it, but nothing seems to stick. I know this kind of stuff takes time and I am willing to give it my all, I just wonder if theres anything that can help me anymore. After a long Googling session on “tips to expand vocabulary” I came across O’Connors wordbooks and am wondering if these will be the answer to my problem. Did your students have effective results from the wordbooks? And if so, do you think this is a smart option for me as well?


  • Robert Nagle 2/28/2013, 2:06 pm

    SARAH: The word books are here . They are good and arranged in an order from easiest to hardest.

    there’s even a pretest to see which word book you should start out with. I’m guessing that you should start with wordbook 4. each book costs $5 each, and they’re good and efficient and pretty painless to use, but there’s nothing really special or magical about it. You could probably find equally good resources on a web page or at a used book store.

  • Dell M. 10/29/2018, 9:17 am

    Great article. My 7 year old used to enjoy reading/discovering new things. Over the last year, he no longer enjoys reading (he can read at a 4th grade level). His vocabulary is average. I would like to see his vocabulary increase but he can only do this if he reads more. Any suggestions for elementary aged children on increasing vocabulary to above average levels?

  • Robert Nagle 10/30/2018, 3:03 am

    Yes, it’s very tough at that age. At that age, getting him in the habit of reading is the most important thing.

    First, Captain Underpants and Nate the Great books are crack cocaine for this age group. Nate the Great is probably ideal for 4th or 5th graders. They are truly outstanding — and great for adults to read as well.(Nate the Great is like Peanuts).

    Second, bring him to a used book store or to a library book sale and give him 20 dollars to spend on anything he wants. (You’ll be surprised at what draws his attention — for my nephew it was magic and Guiness World Book of Records). Try to do that semi-regularly.

    Third, delay giving him a phone as long as possible. Limit game use … if you can.. Build in “downtime” into the schedule as much as you can. Maybe set aside one hour per day for napping/reading (but no tv). One hour without TV or videogames won’t kill anyone!

    I actually strongly support ebooks, but at that age, if you give them a tablet, they’re always going to prefer the games to the ebooks. Get him in the habit of reading first.

    I wouldn’t make him look up words — although having a dictionary available is always a good idea. I got in the habit of asking kids when they come home from school “did you learn any new words today?” Also it helps to help your boy be more aware of all the words around him on a daily basis. It often is quite funny to realize which words your child does not yet know.

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