The good and bad news about vocabulary.

 

The bad news first. It takes a long time to build a strong vocabulary. Years. And you have to read a lot, and a lot of different things. Read novels, comic books, and the dictionary. Read both fiction and non-fiction. Read The New York Times editorial page.

 

It isn't about memorizing definitions. It's about getting familiar enough with words to use them in your speech and in your writing, and doing so without feeling self-conscious about it.

 

Now for the good news. There are no hard words. Not on your English final, and not even on the SAT.

 

What makes a word hard or easy? Is it the number of letters? The number of syllables? No, you know many words with ten or more letters. You know many words with five or more syllables. And you’d have no trouble defining those words. At the same time, there are short words, some just three or four letters, that neither you nor I could begin to define or explain.

 

The words that are hard, truly hard, are the ones that have hard-to-understand meanings. Like “erg,” for example, a common physics term. Here’s the definition of erg as it appears in Webster’s Third New International Dictionary: “An absolute cgs unit of work representing the work done by a force of one dyne acting through a displacement of one centimeter in the direction of the force.” (Notice, by the way, that erg has just three letters and one syllable.)

 

So which words should you learn? Start with the ones in 500 Key Words for the SAT. What’s so special about the five hundred words in that book? A few things. For one, they appear frequently on the SAT and other tests. They also tend to show up in college courses. Depending on what you read and who you hang around with, it’s likely they will continue to show up for the rest of your life. These are the words that comprise much of the language of educated adulthood.

 

Does that make them hard? No. Again, these words are not hard. They’re just unfamiliar. And that’s certainly no cause for despair because every word you know now was, at one time, unfamiliar. For example, at some point in your life, helicopter was a hard word. Once you get acquainted with a word, once it becomes familiar, it loses its mystery and its power to confuse or frighten you. Eventually it becomes an old friend, one of the easy words.

 

Here’s more good news. Almost without exception, most unfamiliar words turn out to have simple meanings. The word celerity may be unfamiliar, but it just means speed, a word you already know.

 

So what is the difficult part? It’s this: when you try to remember what these unfamiliar words mean, you have trouble even though their meanings are simple. Why? Because they’re not part of your everyday speech and writing. You don’t see these words, you don’t hear them, and you don’t use them. So you’ve had no reason to remember them.

 

Until now, that is.

 

You've arrived here, so you must have some purpose for wanting to build your vocabulary. Maybe you’re preparing for one of the standardized tests. Maybe you want to improve your grades in English class. Or maybe you’re just looking to increase your command of the language.

 

Whatever your goal, I believe this website and the two vocabulary books I've published will help you get started -- quickly and painlessly.

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