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Are You Smart ‘Cuz You Talk Big?

Posted by on 24th Oct 2007 | 8 comments

Question: Does having a large vocabulary make you smart?

My answer is no. Having a large vocabulary means you are most likely book-smart and you have strong long-term memorization skills.You can usually sound smart, at least superficially and briefly.

So while having a large vocabulary may get you in the door somewhere, it really means nothing unless you know how to use it. It is not likely (although I’m sure one of you will tell me that it’s been done) that one could make much of a living reciting extensive, unorganized lists of words.

Fact: Shakespeare’s vocabulary (based on his collected works) contained approximately 29,000 different words. The modern, college-educated, English-speaking American has a vocabulary of about 60,000. So, if the number of words you know directly reflects how intelligent you are, then most college graduates are smarter than Shakespeare, right? So where’s your Twelfth Night?

The problem here is that we only use a very small percentage of our available vocabularies. Even a feature journalist whose entire livelihood relies on colorful story-telling, uses perhaps 6,000 words on a regular basis. Pathetic, really.

When I want to remind myself that my vocabulary means nothing if I don’t use it, I play a little game with myself. I call it The Great Game. The Great Game has three steps:

  1. Designate a specific amount of time for which you will play the game.
  2. Carry around a pen and paper to keep track of your score
  3. Keep a tally of the number of times you use the word great (verbally or in writing).

An alternative to a real-time tally is to go through your blog archives and count past transgressions. If your count isn’t obscene, then congratulations. Mine sure was. Great is a colorless adjective and because of its overuse it has become nearly meaningless. How was your day? Great. Did you like my article? It was great. Great job on your homework! Ugh.

So once you have determined that you do, in fact, massively overuse the word “great,” what next? Try to stop using it so much when you speak and write. Invest in a decent thesaurus and use it. Once you’re in the habit of noticing one word, it will be easier to notice other non-descript words you might be overusing.

There is never anything wrong with increasing your vocabulary. Just make sure that, while you are doing that, you make a plan for actually using all those extra words. If you are learning words just to use them once or twice then you are wasting your time. Set up a plan to learn words that will be applicable to your everyday life.

A specialized vocabulary-building program might help, but I honestly don’t think its worth anyone’s money. When I Googled vocabulary, the second paid result said: “How To Improve Your Vocabulary: And Watch Your Carrer Skyrocket Not Another Tape Course…” I would love to see my “carrer” skyrocket. Nothing builds confidence in a vocabulary program than misspelling!

I am not saying that all vocabulary-building programs are crap. I’m not even saying that that particulary vocabulary-building program is crap. What I am saying is it is best to build your vocabulary organically. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • If you are are looking to skyrocket your “carrer,” then read books related to the field in which you work. And, as entertaining as it may be, I don’t mean the Owen Foote Series. Challenge yourself.
  • Subscribe to different types of magazines and a couple of different newspapers. Read the Wall Street Journal, the New Yorker or The New York Times. In fact, read them all. My local paper, The Kitsap Sun, might be good for local news and story ideas, but it isn’t going to help me become a better writer.
  • Keep a dictionary and thesaurus handy when you write. If you find yourself using the same word several times in one article, crack that thesaurus and find something new.

Those are just three of many ways that you can beef up your vocabulary without spending a ton of money or time. If you just add a few steps to the things you would be doing anyway, you’ll find that your word list increases quite easily. The key to all of this is awareness. If you are aware of what you are saying, you can choose to use new and different words to say it.


8 comments - Leave a reply
  • Posted by Jamie Harrop on 24th Oct 2007

    Nice post, Sara. I remember a couple of years ago I had flown to Toronto for a get together of a bunch of online friends from a forum I administrate. I flew back to the UK a few days after the BBQ and all who attended had wrote their bit about the event. I did mine. Then, a few weeks later when I was reliving that few days in Toronto by reading the forum thread, I read my post and I was shocked at how many times I said "great". In a post that was, at most, four paragraphs long, I wrote the word "great" probably 10-15 times. :oops: :lol:

    I remember wondering why some fellow member didn't have the balls to tell me I just made a complete ass of myself. I guess they were laughing at my 'great' post so much they didn't get chance. :)

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 24th Oct 2007

    Jamie,

    I was shocked when I started researching this post and saw the stats for how small of a percentage of our vocabularies we use. Then when I thought about it in context of The Great Game it made sense.

    Sometimes I reread a post on my blog and just cringe because I have started every other sentence with "However," or something lame like that. =)

    Sara

  • Posted by Armen on 24th Oct 2007

    Interesting article.

    In my current job (or carrer), having a good level of vocabulary will definately help. I've also had to replace a few of my 'comfort' words (words I use all the time), as I'm living in a different country at present, and they wouldn't understand all of them.

    I must say, what I did find rather interesting, was your 'fact' that the average college educated American has a vocabulary of 60,000. I find that highly unlikely. In fact, I'd go as far to say, impossible. The Concensus Estimate of the average American is around 14,000. I really doubt that college makes an average difference of over 45,000 words.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 24th Oct 2007

    Armen,

    I found the 60,000 on several websites. Does the Consensus Estimate refer to the actual vocabulary or the active vocabulary? I'm always skeptical about "facts" myself so I did run several searches. However, trying to count a vocabulary has to be pretty difficult.

    Your number and mine are hugely different, though.

    Sara

  • Posted by Armen on 25th Oct 2007

    I got it from here Sara – http://www.languagemonitor.com/Language_Stats.htm

    It's not exactly clear if it's referring actual or active, but, I think if you take yourself as an example, it might help. I've never tried, but, I think if I was to talk all day, to different people, about various things, I'd come nowhere near…oh…even 3,000 I'd say. 3,000 is a lot of different words. 60,000 is a small pocket dictionary.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 25th Oct 2007

    Armen,

    I think you are right. I was thinking about trying to find (or write) a query that would show the number of words used in my blog. I have a relatively (relative to other people I know) large vocabulary and I know that my it (even right out of college) has never been anywhere near 60,000. If I can find a query I will let you know what I come up with from my blog.

    Sara

  • Posted by Joann on 25th Oct 2007

    Yup, the Kitsap Sun is dismal. Even worse is the Mason County Weekly paper. It's a good thing that the New York Times is online.

    Back on topic, I find a large vocabulary to be a hindrance. I use the words I do because they say exactly what I want to say. But if my audience doesn't understand the words, I might as well say nothing. I spend a lot of time trying to figure out how to say things less precisely but more accessibly.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 25th Oct 2007

    Oh! Not Mason County's weekly. Yikes. Do you live in MC?

    Sara