Is a word really in your vocabulary if...

…you only know it from books, you’ve never heard or said it, and you don’t know how it’s pronounced?

In Mr. Blue Sky’s “Simple thing you finally figured out that made you feel stupid” thread, several folks have told tales about discovering the correct pronunciation of a word they’d previously only known from books. This happened frequently in a literature class I took last year, when we took turns reading aloud from various plays: one of the women would come across a word and mispronounce it without hesitation, and I would have bet that she’d seen the word before and knew what it meant, she just hadn’t ever heard it before. Do those kinds of words really qualify as being in someone’s vocabulary?

Part of me thinks that knowing what a word means equals knowing the word, but part of me thinks that if you only know something from a book you don’t really know it . . . and I lean toward the latter answer.

Using myself as an example, I have a fondness for reading legal thrillers and there are several Latin terms/phrases that I’ve become very familiar with as a result, but that I don’t know how to pronounce (I guess I haven’t watched enough legal thriller movies ;)). So in a technical sense, I know these words: I can spell them, I know what they mean, I could even use them in a sentence. But if I ever found myself in a conversation with a criminal trial lawyer, I’d have to confess my ignorance up front and ask how each term/phrase is pronounced (just knowing how the Latin would be pronounced isn’t good enough; when foreign words are used for something specific in English, sometimes the “original” pronunciation gets skewed). Do I consider them to be part of my vocabulary? Not really.

So what do you think? Can a word be considered part of someone’s vocabulary if they know what it means but don’t know how it’s pronounced? Why or why not?
(Just to be clear, I’m not insulting or otherwise criticizing people who know more words on paper than they know how to pronounce. We’ve all had moments when we hear a word and think “so that’s how it’s pronounced!” I’m merely asking if such a word can be considered part of someone’s vocab before that moment.)

If I couldn’t pronounce the word? I’d count it if I actually used it and knew how to use it properly on paper or in my thoughts. I wouldn’t be the best user of my word, though.
Your own understanding seems more important than pronunciation, but part of vocabulary is to communicate with others and that’s compromised to a degree. Just not enough to say it’s not yours.

If you had to pronounce a word correctly before it was a part of your vocabulary, a lot of deaf people would have no vocab to (not) speak of.

And this is why they have those ridiculous “use a word ten times in a day and you shall conquer it forever!” exercises.

“Yeah, well, me and Sally were getting a little bit of habeas corpus goin’ on, if you know what I mean…” :wink:

I’m a bit stumped on this one…how loose is your definition of “vocabulary”? I know that there are ways of testing people to get a rough idea of how many words their vocabulary consists of, but I’m not at all sure how that’s done.

I think the answer to this is one of those things that really depends on what your definition of “is” is…is there any kind of recognized standard for what level of mastery one must achieve before a particular word is considered part of one’s vocabulary?

“is”. is. is. Got to love my vocabulary!

The reason there was no hesitation is because the girl probably *has * pronounced the word several times in conversation, just not properly. Or perhaps she uses the word in her writing but not in her speech. My understanding is, if you know the meaning and usage of a word, it is part of your vocabulary.

Similarly, I learned the word epitome when I was very young, but hadn’t seen it in writing until I was in the seventh grade, when my new favorite word was epi-tome (like the heavy book). I was really embarrassed when my sister pointed out they were the same word.

There are also some words that not matter how they are supposed to be pronounced, you want to pronounce them differently. I had this problem for awhile with antithesis (anti - thesis), and still do with double entendre (en ten dray.)

I can’t remember the word right now, but around the 2003, I repeatedly mispronounced one word, no matter how many times I was corrected. My sister was joking with me about this, saying how cute it was, and all I could think of was “Well, sure it is now, but in thirty or forty years I’ll be just like Bush.” :eek: I was much more careful of my pronunciation after that.

Then how about words which you can read, pronounce and use in a sentence but not spell correctly? Does the definition of “vocabulary” mean that all four (or more?) conditions be met?


Darn, I was hoping that this thread might get past the first reply before someone brought up an extreme example of what I’m not talking about… :wink:

That was my question. :slight_smile: I don’t think there is any kind of “standard,” so I’m asking for opinions (there’s a reason this is in IMHO and not GQ). I have an idea of how I define vocabulary, but I’m interested in knowing how other people define it. So far, the two answers I’ve seen have disagreed with me, and that’s fine: I’m not here to argue my opinion, just to share it and learn others. I don’t think there is a “right” or “wrong” answer to my question.

So you considered both “epitome” and “epi-tome” to be in your vocabulary, even though you didn’t know how to spell the former or pronounce the latter? (I’m not arguing, just making sure I understand what you’re saying.)

See my reply to La Lorna.

Not all of us live in English speaking countries. Given that most of the communication I do in English is, in fact, written, I’d have to answer your question with a definite “yes.”

Aw, man, I hate epistemiological debates.

A word that you know the meaning of when you see it or hear it, but you either can’t recall it in the right circumstance or don’t feel comfortable using it, is called “passive vocabulary.” It is generally accepted as normal for passive vocabulary ito be much larger than active vocabulary.

[not quite a hijack]

Given that some words’ pronunciations vary by region, I would have to come down on the side of “knowing the meaning” as the criterion for having the word in one’s vocabulary. A work buddy pronounced subtle as “sub-tull” but used it in context as if he had said “suttle.” I would allow that breach.

But when you take “dawg” as a pronunciation of dog I contend it’s just a regional thing.

[/not quite a hijack]

Well, I don’t think spelling is a prerequisite for adding a word to your vocabulary. If one used that method, then dyslexics/similarly learning impaired people/just plain bad spellers would not have very large vocabularies. So yes, I considered epitome part of my vocabulary.

Since epi-tome isn’t a real word, I don’t consider it part of my vocabulary. I *thought * I knew how to pronounce it, so I used it, but really it was just a mispronunciation. IMO if you know the definition of a word and can use it in a sentence, but not pronounce it, said word is in your vocabulary. You just sound foolish pronouncing it. After all, if you could pronounce a word, but did not know its definition or usage, then you would not truly “know” the word.

Zeldar, what do you mean dog isn’t pronounced dawg? Are you one of those crazy people who makes it rhyme with Og? :wink: My Southern cousins always correct me on this, but I agree it’s a regional. Much like route.

Knowing the meaning and being able to use it correctly in a sentence is all that is required. Not pronunciation, which does change. Nor spelling, which is often trivia.

I would simply concede that “having a word in one’s vocabulary” is too vague a description for anything. I can identify several aspects of “knowing a word”:

-knowing its pronunciation
-knowing its syntactic behavior (where it can go grammatically in a sentence)
-knowing its morphology (for example, if it’s a noun, does it have an irregular plural?)
-knowing its dictionary definition
-knowing its connotations, idiomatic uses, uses in fixed expressions, etc.

If you want to achieve literacy, then we can add:
-knowing its spelling

Some traditionalists might even add:
-knowing its etymology

Now, if we’re talking about a word that one would only ever use in formal, written contexts, then sure, you could get by without the pronunciation. You know enough about the word to suit your purposes.

I were being facetous (pronounced fah-set-us).