November 2, 2009

Is your vocab in a rut?

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About ten years ago I was interviewed for my high school alumni magazine. When I read the article for fact checking, what stood out was how little the quotes sounded like me. The writer had taken some artistic license with my words, one of which was apparently "terrific." I don't say "terrific." "Fabulous" or "awesome," but not "terrific." However, I know the writer, and she says "terrific."

We all get into word ruts. We find a word we like and we stick with it. I used to say "a few" until I picked up on my husband's use of "several." Now I say "several" all the time.

During Rachel Maddow's interview with David Brancaccio the other day, Brancaccio said "bunch" a bunch of times (well, only three times) instead of "a lot," or "many," for example. It was noticeable just because he repeated it. And we all do this.

We all have different sets of words we're comfortable with, a language and speaking style we've developed throughout our lives. In addition, not all the words we know are words we speak. Wikipedia explains this well:

"Reading vocabulary

A person's reading vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when reading. This is the largest type of vocabulary simply because it includes the other three.

Listening vocabulary

A person's listening vocabulary is all the words he or she can recognize when listening to speech. This vocabulary is aided in size by context and tone of voice.

Writing vocabulary

A person's writing vocabulary is all the words he or she can employ in writing. Contrary to the previous two vocabulary types, the writing vocabulary is stimulated by its user.

Speaking vocabulary

A person's speaking vocabulary is all the words he or she can use in speech. Due to the spontaneous nature of the speaking vocabulary, words are often misused. This misuse – though slight and unintentional – may be compensated by facial expressions, tone of voice, or hand gestures."

How do we explore our vocabulary and get greater usage from it? When I suggest exploring your vocabulary, I'm not suggesting using bigger or more complicated words, or necessarily learning more words (although that's not a bad idea). What I am suggesting is saying what you really mean and using vocabulary to be more clear in your communication. Especially if, like me, you find yourself in a rut using the same words over and over, and you know there are better options.

Say you want to describe something that happened that was "really bad." Was it tragic? Was it horrific? Was it traumatic? Was it scary? Was it gnarly? (A SoCal reference, if that one's not in your vocab.) Was it all of the above? What are you really trying to say? Each word adds a different nuance to the story.

Even if you're not much of a reader, try to find some time for reading books, magazines or newspapers to refresh your vocabulary. And if you come across a word you're not familiar with, get out your dictionary or bookmark one for online reference. When I was a kid, "Look it up!" was an everyday exclamation in our house. We also played a lot of word games, like Scrabble and Boggle. Yes, I'm a word nerd, but you don't have to be one to find the value in stimulating your vocabulary.

Also, consider using a thesaurus when you find yourself stuck in a rut. I use almost daily when writing, to make sure I'm not using the same stale old words but -- and this is important -- I try to find words that are still "me." If I never say "terrific" in conversation, it's doubtful I'm going to use it in a blog post.

Here's a page on building your vocabulary with some entertaining (I wanted to say "fun" but forced myself not to) quizzes and a lot of helpful links.

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2 comments. Please add yours! :

Rich Hopkins said...

My vocabulary has undeniably been formed by my voracious consumption of comic books (they were still comic books, not graphic novels, back then) in my teenage years.

Unfortunately, I don't get many opportunities to use terms like time-space continuum or inter-dimensional vortex these days.

Lisa Braithwaite said...

My vocabulary comes directly from Seinfeld: close-talker, man-hands, bad naked/good naked, jimmy-legs... it's all Seinfeld, baby!

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