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4.1: Vocabulary

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    The English language includes over 1,025,000 words. The average English-speaking adult has a working vocabulary of about 20,000 words. That means most of us have about a million words that we could potentially add to our vocabulary!

    Pie chart showing 98.1% as blue, "Words in the English Language," and 1.9% Orange, "Words Used by Most Adults"


    Having a strong vocabulary makes reading more meaningful and enjoyable, and reading helps build a strong vocabulary. There various other ways to pick up words, though.

    Stuck on a Word? Get Clues … Context Clues!

    Sometimes we misunderstand a sentence because it contains a key word that we don’t know. When that happens, we can try using the context clues, or words around the unfamiliar word, to help us figure out the meaning. How do we do that? Read the boxes below slowly.

    For busy adults, learning new words may seem daunting, or discouraging. However, many people find that learning the meaning of new words and expanding what they know are enlightening experiences that make them more aware of the world’s ideas.

    Do you know what the words daunting and enlightening mean? If not, how could you figure them out? Try looking at the context clues— the surrounding words or phrases that give hints about the meaning of an unfamiliar word. Check the explanation below.

    For busy adults, learning new words may seem daunting, or discouraging. However, many people find that learning the meaning of new words and expanding what they know are enlightening experiences that make them more aware of the world’s ideas.

    In the first sentence, the phrase “or discouraging” comes right after daunting to explain its meaning. Another word for daunting is discouraging.

    How do you figure out what enlightening means? The context clues “expanding what they know” and “more aware of the world’s ideas” can help you. Based on those surrounding phrases, enlightening must mean adding new knowledge to your life.

    Graphic. Measuring cup labeled Content pours a drop of water into a funnel labeled Where, connected to a gearbox labeled When, connected to a pump labeled Device, connected to four droppers releasing blue, green, red, and purple drops over the word Context.



    Should you stop reading to look words up?

    It depends. Looking up words slows you down, and you may be able to make reasonable sense of their context without having to.

    You have to decide how important a word seems to be. Do you feel you are missing something by not knowing it? Does it keep appearing? If you just carry on reading, the word may become clearer as you experience it being used (after all, that’s how we get to know the meaning of most words).

    Sometimes it’s not one particular word that’s difficult, but a string of them. For example, when I read “clinical depression, assessed professionally through population surveys,” I had to slow down. Having taken in the meaning, it seemed to me that “depression” was the main word I needed to pay attention to, so I underlined it.

    Photo of a tiny dictionary, held between a person's thumb and forefinger, against a red background


    One way to tackle the challenge of unfamiliar words is to use a dictionary. You could use a traditional printed dictionary, or an online dictionary, or both. A printed dictionary is easy to keep beside you wherever you happen to be reading. But an online dictionary holds the advantage when it comes to looking up words quickly as you can look up a word in three or four online dictionaries simultaneously, to compare the definitions they offer.

    You also have a choice between using a general dictionary, or a specialist dictionary for the subject that you are studying. How helpful you find either will depend on your subject, so it is worth doing a little exploring to find out. Note down a few “difficult” words from one of your main textbooks. Then visit a bookshop, or go online and find a few dictionaries. Look your words up to see if they are included and whether the definitions make sense to you.

    Dictionaries are an invaluable resource but don’t expect them to be perfect. A general dictionary will often not include key words from your subject area, or will give a definition which is misleading because the nuances of meaning are not right for your subject. On the other hand, specialist dictionary definitions can be difficult to understand.

    Enriching Your Vocabulary

    This quick video suggests a practical guide to absorbing new words into your vocabulary. (Download a transcript for this video here (.docx file).)

    And this video suggests another way to do the same. (Download a transcript for this video here (.docx file).)


    CC licensed content, Previously shared:

    Basic Reading and Writing. Authored by: Lumen. Located at:
    License: CC BY: Attribution.

    Adaptions: Reformatted, some content removed to fit a broader audience.

    4.1: Vocabulary is shared under a CC BY-NC-ND license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by LibreTexts.

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