What's a good way to actually develop a stronger vocabulary for general uses?

I’m a wannabe poet and I wish my vocabulary was stronger. No, I don’t intend to be a show-off erudite, I just wish that I knew what “troubadour” meant off the top of my head. Alas, I don’t.

What’s a good way to actually increase your working vocabulary? I fear that looking up definitions will not lead me to actually use the words much, because they won’t be absorbed in such a way that I’ll really have a feel for them.

Read. You may not know what a word means exactly, but context burns it into your mind for when you do learn.

I second that. When you read a piece of material and there’s a word in it you don’t understand, the entire passage will fail to make complete sense. Go back and target the word, look it up, and then re-read the passage. It will make more sense and you’ll be sure to remember the word and its meaning. Look for strong writers – Tolstoy, Dickens, even Steven King and Dean Koontz. They can make learning new words interesting and entertaining.

Another thing – and this really work well – go ahead and start writing your poetry. Get a Roget’s Thesaurus and find different ways of saying the same thing. This will help find new words as well as helping to develop a more artistic way of expressing yourself.

Read hypertext documents from academic sources on the web. The highlighted words you don’t know will lead you to links which will teach you the meaning of the word, among other things.

If you read the entire entry in the Oxford English Dictionary on any word, you will know the many meanings of the word. Of course, if it works, you will get lost in cross references across the breadth of English Literature.


Well, I’m going to disagree with everyone else. I think you should read to improve your vocabulary. That’s what did it for me.


Agree - read, read, read. And don’t lock yourself into specific genres. Read novels, non-fiction, everything.

It’s more than just context. You can fully learn a word and yet not be able to define it. Honestly, I think it’s better to have a mind definition (which includes context, connotation, formality, etc.) than a dictionary definition.

I read voraciously. Have had a great vocabulary for years. Aced the verbal section of the SAT back when it was called that. I still can’t define many words to any satisfaction but I recognize, understand and can use many words simply because I’ve read furiously for 25 years now.


Try to make your learning curve as efficient and focused and fun as possible by getting yourself lists like the above and write out sentences and paragraphs with the words in context and in combination to better drive them home.

Also, as has been stated, read a lot and use a paperback dictionary to look up every word you don’t know and highlight it and then make up your own sentence using the word.

Another thing I would strongly recommend is to use an online talking dictionary. It’s embarrassing to learn a word and then use it in a conversation and mispronounce it. Nothing worse than a wannabe sesquipedalianist who can’t be pronunciating correctly.

One other fun thing is to get yourself a word-a-day calendar that gives you a neat word everyday complete with it definition, an in-context example, its etymology and spelling


Learn your Greek and Latin roots. Many new words are easy to figure out if you know their roots. And quite a few complicated words are derived from Greek or Latin.

This is one bandwagon I don’t mind jumping on. Read diversely; the more, the better.

Write a book. Works for me.

Buy a Kindle, and read. Then whenever you come across a word that you are even a little vague on, use Kindle’s dictionary to get the definition. If the definition doesn’t really fit the context try and understand what the writer is going for and why they’re using that word. The Kindle is great for this because you can do it without leaving the page in the book.

William Buckley Jr. was once reportedly asked the same question by a NYC restaurant waiter. Mr. Buckley supposedly told him to read the NY Times regularly. Most people only use a few hundred words on a daily basis. Of course, they are familiar with more, but it is nice to have a wider choice and use them appropriately. One thing that I make a habit of is thumbing through the dictionary randomly and picking up words and never letting a word go by me that I am not familiar with. If I hear or read something with a different word, I check the dictionary. As they say, “practice, practice, practice.”

Don’t give him/her ideas… only huge sesquipedalian dicks (no pun intended) use words like “sesquipedalianist” in conversations. I seriously hate it when someone feels the need to get all grandiloquent on my ass for no apparent reason; sure, if there simply isn’t a brachysyllabic word to describe what you’re talking about, go nuts… but if there is… I’ll cut you. You wouldn’t want him to get cut, would you? Other than that, sage advice.

(Epigrammatist me, man and boy.)

Personal experience - true 'dat. I read a lot as a kid, and commonly came across the word “alcove” - problem was that my mind always switched the l and the c and said it “aclove” which is how I then said it in spoken context. It was bad enough that the words I read were the words I used - that made me weird enough - but to then say them incorrectly? :smiley:

There’s some excellent advice in this thread, and I agree with most of it.

I’d add, by a “word a day” calendar or pick a “word a day” website as the startup page in your Web browser.

Also, I was going to say what Richard Pearse said, but substitute “iPad” for “Kindle.” When I got my iPad, I went back and reread a bunch of books by authors known for their erudition, and tapped words I was unsure of to see exactly what they meant.

Agree with the people who recommend lots of reading.

I would specifically recommend Stephen R Donaldson. Some people criticize him for using fancy and obscure words when a simple one would do. Whether you like his style or not, you’ll be sure to boost your vocabulary.

Yeah, but how often do you need “carious” and “caliginous”?

ETA - and how can you forget crepitation? The point is, it makes Donaldson look like an asshole.

When you read the definition of a word, manually write it down (print or cursive). The act of writing will help to implant the definition in your memory. Highlighting it or typing it don’t work as well, perhaps because they’re much easier to do, although you may do them in addition.