Wilbers: Five somewhat easy ways to improve your vocabulary

  • Article by: STEPHEN WILBERS
  • Special to the Star Tribune
  • September 22, 2013 - 1:15 PM

Sometimes you can’t think of the word you need to express yourself precisely, as when you say, “His explanation is hard to believe” when you might have said, “His explanation is implausible.”

How broad or limited is your vocabulary?

Here’s a simple assessment. Fill in the blank: “I like many types of music, literature and people. My tastes are _________.”

If you thought of the word eclectic, I would say you have a broad vocabulary; if you didn’t, you have a limited one.

Whatever your vocabulary range, here’s how to expand it:

1. Read. The easiest and most pleasurable way to expand your vocabulary is to read good authors whose style you enjoy and admire. If they use a word that surprises, delights or confounds you, jot it down. If you don’t know the word, look it up as soon as it’s convenient, preferably while you still recall the context. If you do, you’ll find yourself using more and more of the 500,000 words available to you in the English language, perhaps moving beyond the 10,000-20,000 word vocabulary of the nonreader to the 20,000-40,000 plus word vocabulary of the reader.

2. Use a hard-copy dictionary. In addition to the built-in dictionaries of e-readers, I recommend you use both online and hard-copy dictionaries. Online dictionaries are quick and convenient, but you enter and exit at the point of contact. Hard-copy dictionaries, especially illustrated dictionaries like the American Heritage Dictionary, invite you to browse. They appeal to your curiosity.

3. Move words from your comprehensive to your expressive vocabulary. You possess two sets of vocabulary: a larger set made up of words you understand (at least vaguely) and a smaller set you know well enough to use. These two vocabulary ranges are called your comprehensive (or passive) vocabulary and your expressive (or active) vocabulary. To move a word from your larger comprehensive range to your smaller expressive range, you need to know three things: how to define, pronounce and spell it. As you work to move it inside, engage your muscle memory. Say the word out loud. Move your mouth. And then look for occasions to use it.

4. Be systematic. If you’re serious about improving your vocabulary, set a specific goal. Learn one new word a week, maintain a list and review your list weekly or at least monthly. Look away from your list and see how many words you can write or recite from memory. To take it one step further, write down the sentences in which you heard the words. Make up a shorter list of favorite words, ones you’ll keep at the top of your mind and look for opportunities to use judiciously.

5. Use online resources. For some helpful word lists and vocabulary-building exercises, google “wilbers vocabulary.”

Finally, think of every new word you learn as a personal triumph. Give yourself a pat on the back, buy yourself a chocolate sundae, wolf down a Big Mac with fries or go for a celebratory run.

Stephen Wilbers offers training seminars in effective business writing. E-mail him at His website is

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