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Effective ways to enrich your active vocabulary? [closed]

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Closed by System‭ on Aug 15, 2019 at 20:03

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I come across words like rectitude, like laudatory, like indigent, and being an experienced reader with a strong grasp on my native language, I know what they mean. They're words that I know.

But they're not words I think of when I'm writing.

I know a thesaurus is a great friend, but honestly, I can't picture Nabokov sitting there looking up synonyms, nor do I believe that it's a habit any aspiring writer should make heavy use of. It needs to be there implicitly, in your head, ready for use.

How can I stir up the cauldron of lexical memory and bring the many sunken ingredients to the surface?


EDIT:

A comment below makes the argument that using uncommon words is essentially akin to bad writing; that it's unnecessary and the writer is generally better off using simpler language.

Oh. my. God. Have you ever read 1984?

Clarity is king. That is the number one rule of writing, absolutely. Writing is about communication, and communication is about clarity. Clarity is king. It is a common mistake by amateur writers to use words that inhibit clarity, to use words of great rarity with great frequency to such an extent that their sentences have more syllables than meaning.

THAT DOES NOT MEAN YOU SHOULD STOP AT THE LIMIT OF A HIGH SCHOOL VOCABULARY.

Is looking up words a bad thing? Is expanding your range of expression an outdated notion? Should I call the sky pink instead of fuchsia for fear that my readers won't understand?

While words like tergiversate might certainly have superior substitutes, why should I stop using any word I don't hear on a daily basis?

I'll say this: I go to an engineering school, and people here do not read at all. I mean, period. They literally don't like reading books.

And when I hear a comment like the one below, I think of the moments here like when I called someone shrewd, and they asked what that meant. And it makes me so sad.

And that's the future that we encourage by being afraid to encourage the use of a dictionary.

Lastly, from the comment below:

"Aren't there enough common words to make the writing dynamic without irritating the reader?"

My intended audience never has been and never will be those who are irritated by new words.

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The only way to really expand your vocabulary is to, when you find that you need a word which does not immediately "come" to you, look for an appropriate word in reference works. Go grab a thesaurus, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, or some other reference work (or refer to ones online), and look it up. Then, get a feel for the meaning of the synonym (or antonym...) that you have found, work it into your text, and perhaps mull it over for a bit. Flag it somehow (different color, a column note, whatever) and go back to it later. Read it again. Use the word in question.

No one is born with a complete understanding of a language. I think it's safe to say that everyone uses various reference works now and then. Most people learn a language by being exposed to it. Why does it make you sad when, when you use an uncommon word, the person you used it towards asks what it means? Would it make you feel better if they assumed some, quite likely incorrect, meaning of the word in question?

Referring to a reference work while writing does not mean you cannot use words that your audience is unlikely to know by heart. If, as you say, your audience is open to putting your book aside and referring to a dictionary or thesaurus just to understand the message you are trying to convey (which, if nothing else, is going to be quite inefficient), then what problem does your doing the same to find those words pose? If you do so repeatedly, those less common words should start coming to you more readily as you are writing. But I am betting that there are ways you can work the details into your writing in a reasonably efficient manner which will not require the reader to have a reference work right next to your book in order to understand your message.

I work in the IT field, specifically programming. There is probably a million ways to write code in just about any programming language that makes it difficult for a fellow human to understand, while still being perfectly comprehensible to the computer. There are even contests for that! Programming languages and software development frameworks these days are such huge behemoths that nobody can be expected to know all of it. Lots of C-style-language (C, C++, Java, C#, ...) programmers don't understand the ternary operator (?:). I've had coworkers balk at the C# null-coalescing operator (??). It took me a while to get a good grasp of generics. Start talking about the precise difference between prefix and postfix increment/decrement inside statement execution and far too many are going to look at you like you are delusional. None of this means you shouldn't use them when appropriate; they are all extremely useful language constructs. But if you write a five-levels-deep ternary operator expression involving null coalescing, implied operator precedence, implicit conversions between types, uncommon operators and Heaven knows what else, when something simpler would do just as well, then you are going to annoy people who try to read and understand the intent of that code because they are going to have to refer to reference works all the time, or use a major portion of their mental or physical whiteboard, just to figure out how the blasted thing works. The same goes for natural language writing. Programming languages are just a very formal set of languages, with precisely defined semantics, grammar and syntax. In natural languages, ambiguity is commonplace. In a programming language, any ambiguity tends to be either a compiler/interpreter (lexer, mostly) bug, or specification oversight.

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Read out loud whenever you get the chance. Hearing a word spoken adds another point of reference to the word--along with seeing it, interpreting it, and, potentially, writing it--and, like hearing a song, makes it stick more firmly in your memory.

Language learners are taught to "sing" useful expressions so that they stick in the memory. Initially, this does nothing for cognition, but when combined with research, it can help ingrain the word.

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I heartily endorse and strongly reject your key assertion.

I can't picture Nabokov sitting there looking up synonyms, nor do I believe that it's a habit any aspiring writer should make heavy use of.

My ambivalence relates to the key distinction of WHEN the thesaurus comes into play. It is not a tool to interrupt composition, but does have a central place.

When you have completed a passage of your own (or when you read a piece of Nabakov) then you can use the thesaurus to answer the question How else might I (or he) have written that? Actively seek out alternative terms and expressions, not to be used immediately but to roll around in your sub-conscious until a need arises and a word less-used does spring up, ready for use.

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I have wrestled with this question as well, and there was a time I didn't even know how to articulate the question (which itself exhibits the problem).

The problem: You can read and hear words and understand what they mean, but when you need to formulate your own sentence, the words aren't available to you. They may be on the tip of your tongue (if you're lucky); or they may be absent.

I could read and listen and I knew the meaning of the words I perceived. I could do very well on verbal tests--especially multiple choice.

Another way to phrase this problem of active versus passive vocabulary comes from the field of memory.
The difference is between "recollection" and "recall," (I hope I'm not confusing the two terms or even misremembering one of them--that would be unhelpful).

The idea is that there is a clear difference between, say, a multiple choice quiz which provides you with a choice of 4 provided answers; and a quiz that demands you to come up with the correct answer yourself--either by writing it in the empty box or saying it.

If you intend to give a speech, then recognition will not help you. You need to recall, not recognize. Giving a speech is a very active activity, and requires you to recall; whereas listening to someone give a speech is more passive, and requires you merely to recognize (or understand the input).

I have found that I can perform well in recognition tests, but I often can barely formulate a coherent sentence when I'm anxious or I've not communicated for a day or so.

Here are specific thingamabobs which I've noticed help me:

  1. Reading any well-written passage, OUT LOUD. I've used C.S. Lewis, an English translation of Kafka, and Shakespeare. You might think that Shakespeare would not be very helpful, since his writing is filled with archaic, obscure words and may seem clunky--but reading it out loud seems to have a magical quality of dramatically improving my active vocabulary.

  2. Reading any well-written passage, out loud IN YOUR MIND. This has the same effect as #1, but you must HEAR a voice--any voice--in your mind as you read the words. To be honest, I have no idea how this works, but it does. When I used to speed-read, I read silently and fast. But I stopped speed-reading on purpose because I noticed it seemed to relieve me of my active vocabulary. Words were not easily accessible anymore. I deliberately read books out loud, or heard a voice in my mind read it. In fact, this impaired my comprehension during the reading, but it greatly improved my active vocabulary and sentence structure while talking.

  3. Reading the dictionary. Unfortunately, it is hard to find an electronic dictionary you can read cover to cover. You may need a paper one for this exercise. I still have yet to find an online or e-book version of a dictionary which you can read from A to Z. I have not even read beyond the letter B, but I have found that reading the dictionary indiscriminately always helps my active vocabulary (even beyond the letter I'm on). It sounds boring, but it is a good exercise.

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