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The Strength of a Good Vocabulary

I’m caught out a lot in my misuse or lack of knowledge of the English language. I have a strong vocabulary, my resume is that of a highly educated middle aged man and I’ve been a reader for most of my adult life; but vocabulary and language aren’t as black and white as knowing or not knowing a series of words. Language encompasses more than a vocabulary stapled to the framework of good grammar.

Consider for a moment what we would consider to be our vocabulary. That portion of the language we’re able to use in some legitimate context. The words we know.

Within that vocabulary are words we know how to spell and use in context. If, at any point, someone were to challenge us on a given word there would be an instant response. We know this subset of our vocabulary and can prove that knowledge.

Also within our vocabulary are the words that exist in a grey area. They’re words we think we know. We use these words every other day. But when we’re challenged to precisely explain definitions the knowledge escapes us. We reach for dictionaries to explain the meaning. We can’t put the definition into other words, although we understand the context of everyday usage.

Then there are the subset of words in our vocabulary considered by us to be known. But we’re somehow wrong. Several times this year I’ve been proven wrong on the meaning of a word. For example, I sometimes call idiots “nonces”, although a nonce in British and Australian prison slang is a child sex offender. Yet, nonce slips off my tongue every other month. I’m not sure where I picked up the term nonce, but it’s become a fixture of my brain to employ nonce incorrectly. My error doesn’t stem from a lack of definition and I certainly understand proper context of the word nonce; my problem is in using the word nonce regardless of those constraints.

So vocabulary is more than a set of well defined words we either know or are ignorant about. We have words we know, words we think we know and words we use incorrectly. If enough people use a word incorrectly it can gain impetus through that common usage to be placed into a dictionary in this new context.

The strength of a good vocabulary comes through usage and one of the most powerful things we can do for that vocabulary is to read books. A lot of books. When we read books we are exposed to the vocabularies of various writers. Books expand the context of words we do know and provide new fodder for the words we use, but can’t yet define. It’s important not to forget there is an evolution within language and our collective vocabularies worth the effort to read.

And the stronger our vocabulary the more we nurture a capacity to effectively communicate. What an incredible thing we have in our vocabulary.

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About the Author

Steven Clark Steven Clark - the stand up guy on this site

My name is Steven Clark (aka nortypig) and I live in Southern Tasmania. I have an MBA (Specialisation) and a Bachelor of Computing from the University of Tasmania. I'm a photographer making pictures with film. A web developer for money. A business consultant for fun. A journalist on paper. Dreams of owning the World. Idea champion. Paradox. Life partner to Megan.

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