How to Expand Your Vocabulary

How to Expand Your VocabularyMost of the writerly advice I hear and share boils down to this: keep it simple. From sentence structure to grammar and even your vocabulary, if you want to communicate, you need to simplify. Why bother making your personal bank of words complex when you only need to use the simple bank to write well?

Here are some of the reasons that came off of the top of my head:

  1. So you can use the word that means what you want to say.
  2. Keep your brain fresh and growing aka increase your creativity.
  3. You sound more intelligent when you use the best word for the job.
  4. You allow yourself to use connotation rather than be victim to it.

But let’s assume you already want to increase the capital in your word bank. How do you do it?

1. Read.

Clearly you already know about this one since it’s what you’re doing now.

Reading is the easiest way to increase your vocabulary because it naturally places new words in their correct context and appropriate use. When you come across a new word while reading, most of the time you don’t even need to pull out a dictionary because the implied meaning is so strong.

As an English major, I have found that I know what words mean but can’t define them because I only know them from their reading context. I can use words and phrases correctly in everyday life, but when someone is unfamiliar with the word it takes an extra minute to sufficiently explain what my reading has implicated into me.

If you have the time, looking up all unfamiliar words that you come across in your reading in a dictionary will ensure that you learn more words in less time. Rather than waiting until you’ve accrued some mental connections with a new word, looking up its definition instantly allows you to understand the full extent of the word, how it fits in the phrase, and where and when it is useful.

2. Write.

Writing is a communicative act. How many times have you sat with a phrase on the tip of your tongue, desperately trying to remember so you can write it in? I sit down to type and often find myself pausing, especially while trying to write descriptions. I know generally what I want to say, but I want to say it precisely. Is my character wearing red or burgundy? Is the night damp or humid?

Writing forces you to use a variety of words in order to keep yourself from being repetitious. If you can’t come up with the right mix of words yourself, use a thesaurus. While you’ll probably find the word you actually need within the first three synonyms, if you take the minute to look at all the options, you’ll often find new words to try.

Trying new words allows you to figure out exactly how a word fits in a sentence. This helps you learn the new vocabulary more effectively because instead of just being able to recognize it from your reading, you are synthesizing something with it.

Aka winning.

3. Play.

Here are some apps, websites, and games that will help you expand your vocabulary.

Free Rice

Free Rice is a website that quizzes you in a variety of subjects, notwithstanding English vocabulary. For each question you answer correctly, it uses ad revenue to donate 10 grains of rice to people starving in third-world countries.

So not only are you helping your associative word-powers, but you also save the world 10 grains of rice at a time.


The classic board game forces you to cleverly turn mixes of letters into words. If you play a variation that allows you to look up words in a dictionary, you can surprise yourself by “inventing” words that already exist (and thereby learn new words).

Some alternatives to this game include:

This website (there’s also an app) uses teaching algorithms to help you learn and retain new words. You can either supply some words (from class, for a test, from the dictionary) or allow them to choose words for you.

The gameplay is similar to Free Rice, but the game is designed to help you put words into your long-term memory.

Check out this article for an even more comprehensive list of apps and websites that you can use to learn more words!

What do you think—why should you expand your vocabulary? What do you do to learn new words? How often do you use new words? Share in the comments!

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