How to build a better vocabulary

Image source: Pixabay

Saying more with less means the words you choose have to work harder, which means you have to find the best words for the communication job. And when it comes to finding the right word, you have lots of options—at least those of you in my primarily English-speaking audience.

According to Paul Payack of the Global Language Monitor, the English language exceeded one million words back in 2009.

The millionth word? Web 2.0.

Perhaps a more realistic and authoritative number comes from the Oxford English Dictionary. It’s much more modest:

“The Second Edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary contains full entries for 171,476 words in current use, and 47,156 obsolete words. To this may be added around 9,500 derivative words included as subentries. Over half of these words are nouns, about a quarter adjectives, and about a seventh verbs; the rest is made up of exclamations, conjunctions, prepositions, suffixes, etc.”

At any rate, the English language is big—much bigger than any of us need. According to Linguistics Professor and language acquisition expert Stuart Webb at the University of Western Ontario, people know 15,000 to 20,000 word families, known as lemmas, in their native tongue. And even that’s more than we need to communicate:

  • Eight hundred lemmas allows to speak and understand what you need in daily settings.
  • The most common 3,000 lemmas will enable you to follow most movie or television dialogue.
  • 8,000 to 9,000 lemmas—read novels and newspapers.

However, no matter how well-developed your vocabulary is, the challenge is tapping into it. Most of us are lazy, returning to the same words and phrases over and over.

Following are a few tools and tips to help you navigate the world of words and find exactly what you need to communicate clearly and succintly.

Best resources for finding the right word

Your Personal Vocabulary

Cooks are limited by what’s in their pantry. Artists are limited by their art supplies. Writers and speakers are limited by their vocabularies. If your vocabulary is lacking, your communications will be lacking. But that’s easy to fix by adding more words.

How to build your personal vocabulary:

  • There’s an app for that—multiple vocabulary builder apps, in fact, for both Android and iPhones. Check out Google Play and the Apple App Store for options.
  • Online dictionaries will replenish your word stock with a daily email. Sign up at Merriam-Webster, or the Oxford English Dictionary.
  • When you come across a word you don’t know, look it up—especially if you’re reading online, since it takes only a few extra seconds. Simply copy the word, go to Google, and in the search box type “define” and then paste your word. Or, install a browser extension that will allow you to get the definition as you read. Chrome users can check out Google Dictionary for this option.


You go to a dictionary when you need to look up the meaning of a word. You go to a thesaurus to find synonyms and antonyms, which helps to narrow in on the best word for whatever you’re trying to communicate, as well as other considerations like cadence and style. is almost always an open tab on my browser bar.

Image source: Pixabay

Jargon and slang

Industry jargon and casual slang are vocabularies of their own, yet conventional communication wisdom advises against using them.

I say, sometimes. If you are a physicist addressing other physicists, of course you should speak the language you all know and share, which includes jargon. Would a German talk to another German in Swedish?

The rule about avoiding jargon applies when your audience includes people outside of your industry, who don’t speak your language.

Same goes with slang. Sometimes casual language is appropriate, and it certainly can be descriptive. Depending on your audience and the context, a slang word or expression could be perfect. Or it could land you in a perfect storm of confusion or controversy. Err on the side of caution so you don’t leave your audience feeling confused or offended.

Jargon and slang dictionaries

NetLingo claims to contain “thousands of definitions that explain the online world of business, technology, and communication, including the largest list of text and chat acronyms.”

For the latest on slang, Urban Dictionary is full of sayings and buzz words that are becoming part of modern, English-speaking culture, though be aware that it’s also filled with crude language and examples.

Other useful resources include The Online Slang Dictionary and Wordspy for new words, like Uberization.

If you want to say more with less, you need a vocabulary that gives you access to the most descriptive, appropriate words for any communication situation. I hope these resources and ideas help.