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Looking back through my texts, I noticed that I often use a lot of the same words and resort to using quite a basic vocabulary. I was wondering if there are any good exercises or anything else for expanding my active vocabulary. I know that the first thing to do is to read more, which definitely helps, at least with passive vocabulary, but any other suggestions?


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Expanding your vocabulary is a good thing. But don't fall into the other trap: using a vocabulary your readers do not understand. Too many uncommon word can scare them away, because they think you're stupid to write such a hard-to-read stuff. – John Smithers Dec 2 '10 at 9:45
up vote 16 down vote accepted

Reading is probably the best way, but there are a few others that have worked for me.

One way is to keep a dictionary handy. From time to time, pick a random word, learn how to pronounce it, and write it in a sentence or two.

You can use a thesaurus in a similar manner.

When you find words you like, add them to a journal (print or text). Refer to the journal when you write - try to add your "new words" to your writing.

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I really like the journal idea. – pHneuma Dec 2 '10 at 14:47
This is actually a good way to expand vocab in a second language, too. – MGOwen Dec 24 '10 at 1:50

Whenever you encounter a word you do not know, write it down (in that little notebook that you of course always keep on you, as all good writers should). When you get home, look it up. It could also be useful to write down who said/wrote it, and in what context.

Then you will not only learn a new word, but you will also have a setting in which it is used, and therefore probably get a better understanding of when and how the word is used.

Furthermore, since you have actively pondered on this word for a bit before you look it up, you will be at a more teachable moment when you finally do. Its meaning and use will probably stick better, as opposed to just looking up random words.

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I think tips on how to encounter new words would be useful too. – Jeff Yates Dec 2 '10 at 13:31
Read. Listen. Live. :) – erikric Dec 2 '10 at 14:29

Speaking from personal experience, probably the best way to improve your vocabulary is by studying a foreign language, as many languages borrow vocabulary from each other. One of the most difficult tasks when trying to find that "perfect word" is knowing where to start looking, and knowing (for example) Latin, French, or German synonyms can help when scanning the dictionary or thesaurus.

Additionally, signing up for services such as a "word of the day" RSS feed, particularly those that offer context and etymology over a bare definition, can be very useful.

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In addition to the reading or using a dictionary or thesaurus, you can also look at various Words of the Day. Depending on what you are reading, these may expose you words you may otherwise not encounter. A quick Google Search for 'word of the day' showed sites like Dictionary.com, Merriam-Webster, WordThink, NY Times, The Quotations Page, and Wordsmith.org having this feature.

Edit: I could only enter a single link when I first posted as I had just recently joined. Here are some other useful sites.

  • Visuwords - This online graphical dictionary is a flash app that graphically displays related words. You can enter the starting word or have it select a random word.
  • Merriam-Webster - This part of the M-W site allows searching for a word in a picture or diagram. This would allow you to see other related parts of an object. For example, if searching for 'tread,' one link may also identify the bead of a tire. Another link may also identify the riser of a step.
  • write rhymes - This will let you find words that rhyme with the selected word.
  • OneLook Reverse Dictionary - With this site, you describe a concept and it provides a list of related words and phrases. For example, when searching on 'characteristic of a forest,' the first word in the returned list is sylvan.
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Pay attention to the origins of your words. English is a confirmed pack-rat language--an enthusiastic, perhaps obsessive, collector and creator of new words. Take, for example, the word "large." Unsatisfied with just the one comparative, English has a whole platoon of others in reserve: immense, vast, capacious, bulky, massive, whopping, humongous.

Like immigrants to a new country, each of these words came from somewhere, and some time. Consulting Dictionary.com reveals that vast came in the mid 16th c. from the Latin vastus. Bulky is a mid-late 17th c. adaptation of bulk, which was born to the late middle English bolke in the early 15th century, which was originally bulki in Old Norse, a word meaning cargo, or ship's hold. Conversely, humongous is a much newer addition to the English melting pot, of American coinage during the 1960s. It is a slang combination of monstrous and huge.

All this is to say that every word we use has a history, and that studying that history is an effective way to enrich your vocabulary and improve your diction. While you're contemplating bulk, for example, you might continue browsing the Old Norse shelf for other colourful contributions such as berserk, cur, or ombudsman. English owes its ability to paint such subtle shades of meaning to this etymological diversity.

Sources for this answer:

Bryson, Bill. Mother Tongue, English and how it got to be that way.

Online Etymology Dictionary

List of English words of Old Norse Origin (Wikipedia article)

Dictionary.com (Not a link, I know. I'm only allowed to post two hyperlinks as a new user.)

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I've moved to mostly e-reading on the Kindle and Nook apps on my iPhone/iPad. My wife uses her Android, and even my son has an old iTouch he uses.

All of us have learned to use the built in dictionary, so as soon as you're not sure of a word's meaning, you click it, get the definition, and learn something. The more I do this, the more I find that I can incorporate new words into my writing. Not forcing them in, but as I learn new words and see them more often, I incorporate them.

The other thing that I recommend is that when you find yourself using a word more than once in a paragraph, use a Thesaurus and find another word. Do that a few times and you'll start to have a variety of word choices to use in situations.

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Check out the visual thesauruses out there.

Just follow an interesting path and your knowledge of words is bound to expand.

Sometimes you might find yourself in a very limited area... Sooo....

The random word tool is very useful :D

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As a side note to this, don't rely on the thesaurus to pick your word. Don't use a word from a thesaurus unless you know that word yourself. You never know what kind of connotation a random word might have, and it could end up ruining your scene if you accidentally pick the wrong one. – StrixVaria Dec 2 '10 at 12:14
Yes, very true. But another thing useful about the visual thesaurus'(and other good thesaurus') is that you can see which direction those words are heading towards. – Randomman159 Dec 6 '10 at 11:42

Choose your newspapers to read. Here in Melbourne, we have the 'herald sun' which has the vocabulary of a 10 year old, 'the age' with the vocabulary of a 15 year old. It is rare that I'll come across a word I don't know. I find the nytimes stretches my vocabulary a bit more.

Keep in mind that there is little point learning a word that noone else uses.

I used to do the whole word-of-the-day thing but found myself accumulating a bunch of words I had no use for.

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Read. Old books, new books, complicated stuff, whatever.

Next, get this program, SuperMemo. I have no affiliation with them, but it is awesome. Basically it shows you flash cards, except it works based on a model of human memory that maximizes your retention. I have found it to be really effective. Any time you look up a new word, just add it to the program. Soon you'll have hundreds of entries, all of which you'll be able to remember thanks to its algorithm.

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