Last week a reader named Ferzeen wrote to ask if I would provide some tips for improving vocabulary. “I need to have the right words to be more articulate and to speak and write with substance,” she wrote.

 

Ferzeen is in luck. I have a two-step plan for strengthening your vocabulary:

  1. Read a book called Word Power Made Easy by Norman Lewis. It was first published in 1949 and is still in print after going through I don’t know how many editions.
  2. Read voraciously in a wide variety of genres and subject areas.

I think I was in junior high when I read Word Power Made Easy. It transformed my way of thinking about the English language. It would probably be more accurate just to say that it gave me a way of thinking about the English language. I didn’t have any way of thinking about language before I read this book. I understood for the first time that the language is organized and that the organization is understandable. I was like the fish who said, “So that’s what water is!”

Learning a finite number of Latin and Greek roots, prefixes, and suffixes gives you access to a huge number of English words. No vocabulary book is going to teach you all the words in the English language. But a book like Word Power Made Easy (it’s such an embarrassing title!) can give you the confidence not to be intimidated by words you don’t know. I don’t have any way of knowing whether it is the best vocabulary book out there. But it’s the one that I happen to have read, and it did me a world of good.

This book turned my junior-high vocabulary into a large, well-organized, but rather thinly populated library. As I came across new words, I knew where to put them. Intransigent went on the shelf with hard-headed and stubborn, down the way from steadfast. Recapitulation went on the shelf with summarize. When I learned the noun abstract, I put it on that shelf too.

So, to recapitulate, if you want to grow your vocabulary, read Word Power Made Easy. Then, as you encounter new words in your broad and voracious reading, you’ll have a framework in which to fit them.

But I’d also like to address Ferzeen’s other remark: “I need to have the right words to be more articulate and to speak and write with more substance.”

I’m all in favor of learning new words, but it’s easy to overestimate the importance of a big vocabulary. If you are an adult speaker of English, you probably know more than enough words to speak with substance. Being articulate isn’t a matter of finding the right words so much as seeing the right images, perhaps seeing relationships between ideas, then giving voice to them (probably in straightforward words that you knew by the time you were fifteen).

Out in my yard, the unraked leaves are blowing around, and they remind me of a passage from Ron Hansen’s “Nebraska” that I think I quoted in a previous issue of The Habit Weekly:

And below the silos and water tower are stripped treetops, their gray limbs still lifted up in alleluiah, their yellow leaves crowding along yard fences and sheeping along the sidewalks and alleys under the shepherding wind.

That is powerful, evocative description. And none of the words in this passage would ever appear on any vocabulary list. You’ve known all those words since elementary school. The key to writing that way is learning how to see, not learning new vocabulary words.

Or consider this excerpt from a recent Law and Liberty article by Elizabeth Corey. This passage does use some words that you didn’t know in elementary school:

Notwithstanding our increasing anonymity on digital platforms, we are still embodied creatures who require social contact and friendship. Though we are politically polarized, we still need education and conversation to help us understand what we really think, and where and how we might moderate our views. All of us crave the love and respect of certain others, even if we present a bold and unflinching persona in the face of attack. Civility plays a crucial part in obtaining all these human goods, and we must recognize and cultivate it especially in times, like our own, of deep disagreement and political warfare.

Elizabeth Corey is talking about abstract ideas here: anonymity, embodiment, social contact, friendship, political polarization, civility. The vocabulary is almost unavoidably going to be more “advanced” than Ron Hansen’s yellow leaves crowding along yard fences under the shepherding wind. Even so, the path from a big, Latinate vocabulary to a paragraph like Elizabeth Corey’s is not a direct path. Elizabeth Corey was able to write that paragraph because deep, wide reading had given her an understanding of all those abstract ideas and how they fit together.

A bigger vocabulary will make you a better reader. Wider reading will make you a better writer. But vocabulary-building without broad reading probably isn’t going to do much for your writing.