Things to consider when increasing your vocabulary

  • The more you read, the richer your vocabulary will become.
  • Just knowing the definition of a word does not indicate you understand it.
  • You must also understand it in context.
  • Knowing what a word means is connected to the background that the word is used within.
  • Words that are used in speaking or writing (ie “expressive vocabulary”) often require a greater understanding than those used in listening and reading (ie “receptive vocabulary”) (Allen, 2006).


Beefing Up Your Written Vocabulary

In all of your important writing, you should try to use better words. Or, if I were to rewrite that sentence with “better words,” it would look like this: In all of your serious writing, you should attempt to employ enhanced vocabulary. Of course, it is not necessary to do that when you are composing emails and memos and other less formal types of writing, but, on the other hand, it would not hurt.

You need not be an English major to improve your written vocabulary. There are three easy ways in which to do this:

1. After you are finished writing, reread your work. You should always do this anyway in order to spot and eliminate writing errors. But, now, when you reread your writing, think about substitutes for some of the words that you used. You do not need to, and, in fact, you should not replace all of the everyday words with higher level ones. It is not necessary to do so. Using complex words throughout your document may obscure your meaning, and it may cause your writing to appear pompous. In any case, examine your writing, and ask yourself, “Do I know a better word to use instead of …?” For example, instead of get, use obtain or acquire. Instead of do, try implement or perform. Of course, in some cases, do is more suitable than one of its substitutes. (Something I would like to try)
2. Use Microsoft Word’s Thesaurus. Simply highlight the word that you would like to replace. Then click the Tools function on Microsoft Word. Click on Language. From Language, click Thesaurus. Then choose a substitute.


Other useful links:

Shen’s note: ample tips are available online about vocabulary improvement; however, majority of them might not be useful or suitable. My interest is to improve expressive (writing) vocabularies instead of receptive (reading) ones. Thus, simply knowing the definition of a word is not enough. One ought to know the context of use in order to utilize a word precisely in text. Strategies such as remembering isolated new words and definitions are not suitable.

In my view, the following three tips are simple enough and probably effective.

  1. Read fine articles and write about them. Reading ensures learning new vocabularies in context, and writing offers opportunities to practice. To save time, always read high quality articles, such as New York Times or classic books.
  2. As suggested above, use thesaurus to vary words in your writing. This process can enrich your expression and help to break out of the old mindset.
  3. Do a little, but keep it up. Slow and steady wins the race.

Written by Shengdong Zhao

Shen is an Associate Professor in the Computer Science Department, National University of Singapore (NUS). He is the founding director of the NUS-HCI Lab, specializing in research and innovation in the area of human computer interaction.