The Importance of Building Your Vocabulary (and 5 Easy Steps To
by Brett & Kate McKay
Art of Manliness
we offered advice on how
to remove empty filler from your speech by minimizing how often
you say “uh” and “um.”
going to talk about removing another kind of filler from your speech
(and your writing as well): empty words. Just like empty calories
have the form of food but offer no nourishment to the eater, empty
words take the form of verbiage, but offer no substance to the listener
– leaving them hungry for meaning and details.
and “um’s” can be eliminated altogether, empty words need to be
replaced with heartier fare. Stocking your cupboard with such means
building a large and varied vocabulary.
It seems like
the only people who think about building their vocabulary are young
adults who are preparing for standardized tests. Which is a shame,
as expanding our vocabularies should be a lifelong pursuit. Why
so? Because a command of words can benefit your life in many ways.
Benefits of Building Your Vocabulary
you the ability to say what you mean. Is your speech filled
more with emotion than meaning? Is everything
either “stupid” or “awesome?”
of a word to describe a wide range of seemingly unrelated things
saps it of any meaning. If a corn dog, a YouTube video, a job promotion,
and the Great Wall of China are all “awesome,” then awesome ceases
to have any meaning at all. Think of your vocabulary like the dial
on an amp – if it’s always turned up to 11, you don’t have anywhere
to go when trying to describe something truly impressive. Your only
resort is to add empty intensifiers: “But seriously, it
was really awesome.” The less you use what should be a
meaningful word, the more potent it becomes (this goes for swear
words too, by the way).
a nimble working vocabulary gives you the ability to make finer
and finer distinctions between things so that you can say exactly
what you mean, and be explicit instead of vague when sharing
your ideas and opinions or simply making conversation. This increases
your chances of having other people understand what you wish to
express, and at the same time it…
you understand other people. Building your vocabulary involves
more than just memorizing lists of the kinds of words you had to
know for the SAT. Just as learning a second language can help you
understand people from other countries, increasing your working
vocabulary allows you to understand those who may share your mother
tongue but also have a special “dialect” of their own. People’s
fields of work and interests often come with special terminology
that isn’t as commonly known. The more of these “special” words
you learn, the greater the variety of people you can connect with.
Not only does
a diverse vocabulary allow you to build rapport with a wide range
of people, but knowing some medical, legal, and other technical/professional
lingo can prevent you from being taken advantage of, and allow you
to be proactive in your approach to dealing with doctors, lawyers,
mechanics, customer service, and so on.
you understand what you read. Vocabulary not only aids
you in understanding other people, it’s also essential in comprehending
the books and articles you read. Words you’re unfamiliar with become
little holes in the text, preventing you from reaching a complete
understanding of what you’re reading.
you in becoming a more informed and involved citizen. Related
to the two points above, the more you increase your vocabulary in
general, and also specifically in areas like politics, geography,
the military, and so on, the better able you become to understand
news and currents events, and the more widely varied the conversations,
discussions, and debates you can jump into. And when you do take
part in a debate, you’ll be able to use – gasp! – facts, instead
of heated bloviations.
your ability to grasp ideas and think more logically and incisively.
While we often think of our thoughts as shaping our words, it works
the other way around as well. Think of words like a set of tools
– a small vocabulary is like trying to carve a sculpture with only
a chainsaw, versus using a whole set of different instruments that
can make both broad and fine cuts. The greater the number of words
at your disposal, the more instruments you have with which to hone
your own ideas, and dissect and examine those of others.
you to communicate effectively. A masterful command of
words, and the ability to select just the right ones to express
a specific idea, for a particular audience (more on this below),
is essential in crafting powerful and engaging speech and writing.
The repetition of the same words over and over again quickly bores
people, while the skilled use of a wide array of them enables you
to draw people in and paint a rich picture. This is why an expansive
vocabulary is one of the keys for great leaders – words allow you
to grab the interest, and then allegiance, of others.
And a robust
vocabulary is just as important when you’re operating off the cuff
as when your remarks are pre-planned – instead of hemming and hawing,
searching for the right words to say, you can express yourself forcefully
and with confidence.
your powers of persuasion. It’s hard to get people interested
in an idea – whether a tangible product, a business pitch, or a
piece of philosophy — and convince them of it unless you 1)
understand it inside and out yourself, and 2) can describe it to
others in an engaging way (see the two points above). Repeating
the same word over and over again (“I’ve got this cool idea. See,
it’s got this cool wheel here and then this really cool axle stick
outs…”) is going to have the eyes of your audience quickly glazing
over. It certainly won’t help you sell them on something, or on
yourself — issuing banalities in a job interview (“I’m a hard
worker and a people person!”) won’t do anything to set you apart
from the myriad of other hard working, people-pleasing candidates.
you make a good impression on others. How articulate you
are constitutes a big part of the impression you make on others.
Based on the vocabulary you use, people will make judgments about
your socioeconomic background, education, occupation, and the stimulation
and demands of your everyday life (a stay-at-home mom sometimes
starts using baby language when talking with adults, while a professor
may drop very academic terms into casual conversation).
It’s not a
particularly unfair judgment to make. Your schooling, circle of
friends, job, and reading habits do have a direct and considerable
effect on your vocabulary. But that doesn’t mean that if you’re
a construction worker or don’t have many years of schooling, that
a sizable vocabulary is out of reach. Building your vocabulary is
a very egalitarian pursuit: anybody can do it, and can start anytime.
Malcolm X serves
as a great example of this, and many of the above points as well.
His formal education ended in junior high, and as a young man he
fell into a life of crime and was eventually arrested and put in
prison for burglary.
As he recalled
autobiography, behind bars X (then named Malcolm Little), came
under the mentorship of a fellow prisoner, whose self-education
Little envied, and who motivated him to get some “homemade education”
particularly frustrated that he was unable “to express what I wanted
to convey in letters that I wrote…In the street, I had been the
most articulate hustler out there — I had commanded attention
when I said something. But now, trying to write simple English,
I not only wasn’t articulate, I wasn’t even functional.”
Little was also vexed by his difficulty in reading: “Every book
I picked up had few sentences which didn’t contain anywhere
from one to nearly all of the words that might as well have been
in Chinese. When I just skipped those words, of course, I really
ended up with little idea of what the book said.”
He was motivated
to turn this around for himself, and so requested some tablets,
pencils, and a dictionary from the prison. After rifling through
the dictionary’s countless pages, amazed at the number of words
he didn’t know and confused about which he needed to learn, Little
turned to the first page of entries and started slowly and painstakingly
copying each and every one of them by hand, “down to the punctuation
marks.” It took him a whole day to inscribe one page, after which
he read the words back to himself over and over again.
up the next morning “thinking about those words — immensely
proud to realize that not only had I written so much at one time,
but I’d written words that I never knew were in the world.
Moreover, with a little effort, I also could remember what many
of these words meant. I reviewed the words whose meanings I didn’t
the same process over and over again, going page by page through
the dictionary copying every single word, until finally he had copied
the entire tome. This exercise did not take long to bear the prisoner
it was inevitable that as my word-base broadened, I could for the
first time pick up a book and read and now begin to understand what
the book was saying. Anyone who has read a great deal can imagine
the new world that opened.”
a voracious reader, devouring every book the prison library had
to offer. Once he had served out his sentence, his vocabulary studies
transformed him into an articulate speaker, known for his incisive
rhetoric. Even those who didn’t agree with what he had to say were
impressed with how he said it. As he himself recalled, “Many who
today hear me somewhere in person, or on television, or those who
read something I’ve said, will think I went to school far
beyond the eighth grade. This impression is due entirely to my prison
The good news
here is not only that anyone who has the discipline and motivation
to build their vocabulary can succeed, but there’s a much easier
way of doing it than copying down the entire dictionary!
the rest of the article
© 2012 The Art of Manliness