Skip to main content

Lost for Words -- Writer's Poke #420

The Oxford English Dictionary contains over 600,000 words. Simply put, no other language comes close. Spanish, for example, only has 100,000 words. Here’s the sad news: The richness of the English language more or less goes to waste. The average English speaker recognizes somewhere between 10,000 and 20,000 words. 

But guess how many words we actually use of a regular basis? According to Richard Lederer, 96% of average conversations conducted in English are comprised of the 737 most common words! Listen to a conversation the next time you’re in some public place, and you’ll probably be able to quickly confirm these findings. 

Maybe we don’t need 500 words for “big” when “big” will do just fine, but if that’s true, isn’t it interesting that the English language keeps growing by 1,000 words each year? The language itself continues to grow larger, while the average English-speaker's vocabulary seems to shrink year after year.

Who takes the time to study vocabulary words? I did for a while, but that was years ago when I was studying for the GRE. I have never met anyone who studies vocabulary for fun. Maybe there are some crossword puzzle fans or Scrabble players out there that study vocabulary words, but why aren’t there thousands, if not millions, of English-speaking people who just want to be able to communicate better? Why aren’t they studying vocabulary?

Studying vocabulary is a natural process. When my five-year old daughter doesn’t recognize a word, she asks. That’s really all that’s required, but for the most part, once we grow up, we no longer take the time to ask. We no longer take the time to learn. We’re content with what we know, and if we read a passage and don’t recognize a word, we don’t stop to look it up. We just race right past it, content with the 700 words or so that serve most of our daily purposes.

How would you describe your knowledge of the English language? If you don’t study vocabulary, is it because you think you already know all the words you need?

“Drawing on my fine command of the English language, I said nothing.” – Robert Benchley


  1. As usual, that is perceptive. One thing that troubles me is that a great amount of current speech and writing uses language which is not at all uplifting. I mean uplifting in many senses, perhaps, but even in the simplest sense of lifting the reader to a higher level of appreciation for clear and lucid writing, much writing today fails. Too often if makes no attempt.

    Then there are those who think the interjection of a "hell" or a "damn", or maybe a reference to a bodily function, will improve the writing.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog