If the title of my column confuses you, here’s the bare bones translation: Why use big words? And if you’re like many people, your first thought is: Why didn’t he just say that in the first place?
To make a point: I had a student ask recently, as I seem to have yearly, why they need to know the vocabulary words I assign. The theme of the unit last week was disagreement, so the students had words such as belligerent, contradictory, discord, and strife. These are not necessarily words that most people use in everyday conversation, but you run across them in news stories all the time. As I told the students, that’s why it’s important, so they can understand the world around them.
Of course, I don’t always expect students to remember every vocabulary word we study. It’s more important to learn the process of figuring out definitions through context clues and knowing which forms of the word to use in varying situations. For example, I see more and more where kids write some verbs in past tense and others in present tense. Figuring out when to use each derivation is vital to clear writing.
The Economist did a survey a few years ago to determine average vocabulary size for native English speakers. Kids at four years of age, on average, already knew 5000 words, and were up to 10,000 by age eight. Adults averaged between 20,000-35,000 words. Part of their survey showed that people who read a lot of fiction have a higher count than those who don’t read much or only read non-fiction.
Here’s something disturbing though. In 2000, Time reported that in 1950, the average 14-year-old had a 25,000-word vocabulary. By the turn of the century, that number had dropped to 10,000. That’s a steep decline and likely shows less and less reading being done as television began taking over our lives.
It’s also said that the average person uses about 5000 words in normal conversation and double that when writing. The big words I use in my column do not always find their way into what I say out loud, though I know some of my readers have told me they make an effort to use the word of the week every week.
And that’s the beauty of vocabulary consumption. It doesn’t matter how bright or not you think you are, anyone can learn new words. It just takes effort and practice, like learning to ride a bike. Once you start using a word, you’ll never forget it!
There are over one million words in the English language. Many believe that college educated folks have a vocabulary in the 80,000 word range, though, again, we don’t often touch many of those words; we just know them when we see them. Shakespeare used 33,000 unique words in his plays; that’s pretty impressive considering the English language was not nearly as large 400 years ago as it is now!
After a few years off, I again had a class participate in National Novel Writing Month during November. My high skills 8th graders had a goal to write a 10,000-word story, and they nearly all met that goal. As we prepared to do this, we talked about ways to up the word count, especially when the writer might be struggling to find a voice. Many students took to writing very descriptively, detailing settings and characters extensively. They also included many lists, which also helped paint the picture of what was happening at the time.
I use that phrase a lot in class: paint the picture. Show your reader exactly what’s happening and what the setting around the characters looks like. Describe your characters painstakingly and help the reader envision everything in the scene, as if he or she is watching it on a screen. To do that requires a good vocabulary. I often use “word choice” as a specific area of grading on writing assignments. That’s how important a good vocabulary is in writing.
As I was writing my own story alongside my class, I continued to search for ways to follow my own advice. A common example is when a writer uses dialogue and tries to avoid using the word “said” too much. Sometimes I’ll have students brainstorm other iterations of that word that could be used; we usually fill the board with ideas such as replied, suggested, asked, etc.
Sometimes it’s just understanding a dialect from a different era. As my 7th graders read Tom Sawyer this year, we stopped often to define a word that was used differently in the 1800s compared to now. They’re on to The Outsiders now, but the same thought applies. A student asked me today what the word blade meant in context. In the 1960s, when this book was written, it was short for switchblade, but you don’t often hear that in our modern era.
Back to the original question: Why learn all these words? We become more knowledgeable of the world around us, can become better readers and writers, and, most importantly, can impress our friends and confuse our enemies!
Word of the Week: This week’s word is sesquipedalian, which means characterized by long words or long-winded, as in, “The sesquipedalian columnist tried to increase the vocabulary of his readers.” Impress your friends and confuse your enemies!