How can I improve my vocabulary?
March 2, 2016 7:30 AM   Subscribe

I am in my 40's and college educated. I've always been told that my language skills are impeccable, but I feel like there's room for improvement. For example, I recently read an article that contained the words "milieu" and "métier," and had to look them up.

I'm considering going to graduate school, which would involve writing a thesis. It's been over 20 years since I finished my undergraduate studies, so I feel out of practice in writing research papers, and would like to give my vocabulary skills a "boost."

What suggestions do you all have?

Thank you!
posted by matrushka to Education (38 answers total) 16 users marked this as a favorite
Read harder stuff, and look up the words, like it sounds like you're doing -- learning words in context like that works well IMO.

Also, if you go to grad school, you'll be doing a ton of reading in the area you're studying, so you'll learn a lot of relevant and interesting vocabulary quickly, if you're diligent about looking stuff up.
posted by xris at 7:39 AM on March 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

If it's words like milieu and métier, maybe study French? ;)

Seriously, though, learning new words is a lifelong process and having to look them up is perfectly normal. The main thing you could do, if you're worried about what this means for your academic writing, is read stuff in the area you plan to study in order to familiarize yourself with how professionals are writing in the discipline today and with field-specific vocabulary in context.
posted by bibliotropic at 7:47 AM on March 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

I would use a spaced repetition system such as Memrise. Something like this course, for example. I live by spaced repetition for foreign language vocabulary building and can think of no reason why it shouldn't apply to one's native language as well.
posted by Tanizaki at 7:56 AM on March 2, 2016

I wasn't a big ebook reader before, well, this past week, but I just caved and got a kindle paperwhite and one really helpful feature (also present in the kindle apps) is that I can look up words in the text without pulling out my phone or a new browser window. If you regularly read challenging kindle books (you can send academic texts or what have you to a kindle/kindle app, too) and made an effort to look up definitions, I'm sure your vocabulary would grow quickly.

Plus, every word you look up gets recorded in the "vocabulary builder" feature on the kindle and you can go back and review them (or, I imagine, use that lost to build memrise flashcards or what have you).

There are also a few good apps for learning GRE vocabulary that I found useful for identifying challenging words. Like you, I know I have room for improvement but unlike you, I typically don't look up words and instead impose somewhat inaccurate contextual definitions on words I don't encounter very often - those apps really held me accountable for those.
posted by R a c h e l at 8:08 AM on March 2, 2016 [8 favorites]

I would use a spaced repetition system such as Memrise.

I'm a big fan of Memrise. When we'd help kids get better at vocab for their GREs, we'd give them a few things to work on. I think there's a combination of things

- expanding vocabulary which is a lot about reading harder/higher level stuff and looking up words you don't know (I would keep a bookmark when I was reading print books and write down words I didn't know)
- roots of words which is helped by learning other languages or doing flash cards sort of things
- internalization which is helped by trying to use those words in conversation and approaching spoken words you don't know in the spirit of inquiry "Oh what does that word mean?" so you can learn and not just give yourself a hard time for not already knowing
posted by jessamyn at 8:50 AM on March 2, 2016

I'm all in favor of reading and having a large vocabulary. But please do not think that to write a good thesis that you need to use more "fancy words." That presumption constitutes one of the contributing factors to the pervasiveness of written communication by members of the academic community that is less than fully intelligible to a broad cross-section of the public. Or, rather, that's one reason academic writing is so bad.
posted by Mr.Know-it-some at 8:52 AM on March 2, 2016 [12 favorites]

I learned a lot of vocabulary from writing. A broad vocabulary is only useful if it can communicate a greater range and nuance of meaning. When you have to put your ideas into words, you start picking up better words to describe what you mean. Words are like different shades and pigments, each carrying a subtle but important distinction from the next. I highly recommend picking through a writer's thesaurus. I have the Oxford American Writer's Thesaurus. It provides little anecdotes about the difference between words like "furious" and "incensed" and why you would pick one over the other. I was used to thinking of a thesaurus as a big list of synonyms, but that's not correct. The trick is not, for example, choosing a fancier-sounding word for "angry," but choosing the word that describes the exact type of "angry" you are talking about.

Then there's also the matter of tone and cadence. E.g., Anglo-Saxon words sound harsher and more honest to the American ear, while Latinate words sound more sophisticated and elegant. That gets us more into poetics and the aesthetics of language, rather than diction, but it is also something you pick up from writing.
posted by deathpanels at 8:55 AM on March 2, 2016 [7 favorites]

Re: reading things with hard words, the New Yorker often has me looking up words, as do Zadie Smith essays (and Nabokov, if you're up for something longer).
posted by momus_window at 9:06 AM on March 2, 2016

I submitted my thesis last week, so I can tell you first-hand that you'll be able to pick up all of the vocabulary you'll need to write a great thesis by...reading the massive quantity of literature in your field that you'll need to read in order to actually write a thesis. When you come across words that you don't know, you can look them up. Reading them in context will help you remember the meaning over time. If the new words are used a lot, that's when you'll start to think about incorporating them in your own writing.

A good thesis is explained in such a way that it's easy to understand by an expert in your field, and should never ever include words that your thesis examiners will need to look up in a dictionary. That won't impress anyone, and will only hurt you.
posted by randomnity at 9:08 AM on March 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

First, you are doing exactly the right thing already: looking up unfamiliar words as you encounter them. Boom: vocabulary has expanded.

Secondly, I am vociferously seconding randomnity and Mr. Know-it-some. You do not need a vocabulary brimming with rarely-used and unusual words to write a good thesis. Graduate students who feel like they need to impress their advisors with their advanced vocabulary usually end up writing papers and theses that are less clear and less enjoyable to read as a result. You want your professors to be impressed by the clarity of your thinking. Straightforward, unpretentious writing does that best. And, yes, you'll gain all the additional vocabulary you need just by having to read broadly in your field. To the extent that you have a problem (negligible), it is one that is automatically solved by the nature of graduate school itself.
posted by Pater Aletheias at 10:47 AM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

Keep a commonplace book, previously.
It's an excellent way to keep track of the new words that you've learned, keep quotations, inspirations, etc.
Basically a notebook to collect the things you want to remember about things you've read. I've found the several I have are a great resource for words I've found and loved while reading.
posted by OHenryPacey at 10:58 AM on March 2, 2016

Nthing clarity over fleurissement. (see what I did there)

Also, honestly, don't worry about métier – it's a tough concept to grasp even for French speakers, because it can have so many meanings depending on context. It can be a weaving loom, it can be a business, it can be a profession, it can be functional/technical specifications... I realize that its usage in English is less flamboyant, but still, c'est un terme de grande complexité. (sorry, can't help it)

If you want to turn into a chuckling goofbag snootypants à la française like moi-même, yes, learning French adds a lot of depth and breadth to English vocabulary. See also: Normans.
posted by fraula at 11:04 AM on March 2, 2016

I tend to think that, assuming you're an educated adult in a country that shares your first language and without mental disabilities, your vocabulary is usually the size that it should be. That is, you will have a working vocabulary that reflects your expressive and comprehension needs. If you had had a genuine use for "metier" and "milieu", you would already have learned them. Learning strings of words in isolation will not be of much help to you--not only does it get harder and harder to retain them as we get older, but you won't learn them in context and so you're unlikely to use them with real sensitivity and nuance. This means you are much more likely to come off as pompous than as highly literate when you do use them. Now, if you are frequently encountering words you don't know, looking them up and noting them down will help. Spaced repetition once you have a list. But vocabulary acquisition outside of a context of use is worse than useless.
posted by praemunire at 11:06 AM on March 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

My wife gets to read a ton of graduate work as a tenured psychology prof. The worst students tend use the largest vocabulary in their assignments because they think vocabulary is how you demonstrate that you are smart. This is a very mistaken belief and your reader will think you have been bitten by Thesaurus Rex.

That said, I love language and have a huge vocabulary and I would look up mileau and metier (in fact I just did - mé·tier, ˈmāˌtyā,māˈtyā/ noun: métier; plural noun: métiers, a trade, profession, or occupation).

The trick is to always look up words you are not familiar with. Also make a point of looking up words that you are even the least bit uncertain of or that you hear being used in a way you think is incorrect. You'll be surprised how many words you have been using wrong your entire life. I often am and I had a prety high percentile GRE verbal score.


It is easier now that smart phones and tablets are ubiquitous and always within arms reach.

"OK Google definition "word"" is extremely easy to do. So is selecting text and double right-clicking and selecting Search Google for "word" from the dropdown.

Then try and somehow use the word almost right away to help consolidate it in your memory. However, after practise, use it with precision and where it make sense - don't just use obscure words to puff yourself up. Use them when they are the clearest and most succinct option.

I like to know what obscure words mean because I get a more accurate idea of what others are saying. I sometimes use them but not very often because you just can't assume people will understand them.
posted by srboisvert at 11:44 AM on March 2, 2016 [4 favorites]

Yes. Continue what you are already doing. I still look up words all the time, even ones I'm pretty sure I know the meaning of but want to be totally sure or remind myself.

Also, word roots and origins. When you look up a word, check out its etymology/derivation. It can really help you suss out the meaning of a word you don't know, if you can recognize a few parts that make it up.
posted by rachaelfaith at 11:56 AM on March 2, 2016

Develop a habit of doing crosswords. Yes, there's lots of so-called "crosswordese", but I learn at least one new word everyday. The NYT Crosswords app is worth every penny.
posted by monospace at 12:00 PM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I read Word of the Day.
posted by saturdaymornings at 12:04 PM on March 2, 2016

Seconding the encouragement to pick up a second language. I took a degree in French, and took some Latin along the way, and my appreciation for and fluency with English grew tremendously along the way. A lot of French worked its way into English over centuries of English-French political conflict, but the same applies to many (most?) of the languages in Europe, even the ones that didn't spring up from Latin. In a very general sense, learning a second language forces you to develop a better understanding of English grammar and syntax, not just vocabulary.
posted by late afternoon dreaming hotel at 12:04 PM on March 2, 2016

metier (in fact I just did - mé·tier, ˈmāˌtyā,māˈtyā/ noun: métier; plural noun: métiers, a trade, profession, or occupation).

This illustrates the problem with overreliance on dictionaries, though (esp. the shady random ones that tend to pop up in online searches): in English, most people (well, most who would use the word, anyway) would not use metier to mean your job, but rather your area of expertise, your specialty, your focus. He's a painter. Oils are his metier. She's a writer--her metier is true crime, though occasionally she writes more general non-fiction. Darling, resortwear is just outside my metier. "My metier is lawyer" is something you would rarely hear (though never say never).
posted by praemunire at 1:49 PM on March 2, 2016 [2 favorites]

Learning Latin will greatly expand your vocabulary. A good instructor or method for self-learning should cover how Latin became the basis of so many English words.

I'd also echo reading at a higher level than you normally might, specifically classics and translations of Russian authors such as Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. The words won't be archaic (the way Shakespeare is), but the more formal tone will show you how incorporating eg milieu can work when appropriate, and in a much more meaningful way than flipping through a thesaurus.
posted by A hidden well at 3:27 PM on March 2, 2016

Just because it hasn't been said yet, there are word lists out there. For instance, I really think back to senior year in high school, when we were drilled on SAT word lists. I learned some new words via that process.
posted by Miko at 5:16 PM on March 2, 2016

I just want to echo everyone else who is saying.

When I'm grading papers, one of the comments I most wish I could write is: "I don't think this word means what you think it is." A lot of students think that in order to sound academic, they need to use "fancy" words--but it backfires on them because they end up using them clumsily or inappropriately.

My friends and I sometimes call it "cargo cult academic writing."

Once you're at the graduate level, writing is a tool for communication rather than something that you're being directly evaluated on. It's the quality of your ideas that matters. Obviously, you want to be a competent writer (and may aspire to be an excellent one), but my point is, you don't have to prove yourself by using fancy vocabulary. No one expects that.

The writing skills you will need are things like crafting a coherent argument, communicating complex ideas clearly and precisely, using field-specific terminology, and so on. If you already have a decent vocabulary, once you supplement it with field-specific terminology, it will be enough.

What will actually help you is reading papers in your field so that you can build a "genre awareness" and learn that terminology in context. While you're at it, you'll also learn about the ongoing conversations in the field, which will be very useful later on.
posted by Kutsuwamushi at 7:07 PM on March 2, 2016 [3 favorites]

Read older books - published prior to about 1950.
posted by corb at 7:40 PM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I'm a fan of A Word a Day. (I just wish I could find an equivalent in German.)
posted by Soliloquy at 8:43 PM on March 2, 2016

Word of the day emails! The Oxford English Dictionary's offering is surprisingly commonplace and lackluster. is pretty solid. A Word A Day is also good. My favourite, wwftd (worthless word for the day) served up the most obscure and glorious words, and sadly is no longer operating, but it may be possible to peruse the archives somewhere...

I received three or four word of the day emails for a while. Many of the words are not of the daily rotation variety, but I've definitely learned some good ones along the way.
posted by snorkmaiden at 8:51 PM on March 2, 2016

Look up every word you don't know. Use the same dictionary and make a mark next to each word you look up. It won't be long before some words have two or more marks.

Keep a list in books of words you look up on a bookmark or inside the front cover. You can review it when you finish the book.
posted by hydrophonic at 9:41 PM on March 2, 2016 [1 favorite]

I would suggest to go one word at a time rather than try to master a big list. The latter is too daunting and probably won't work. For various reasons (how and when you encountered them, what mental association you created at that time, etc.), some words will stick and some won't as easily. Just try to add some words regularly, in particular any that you encounter repeatedly and any that seem particularly useful and meaningful to you, and eventually the list will grow.
posted by Dansaman at 9:47 PM on March 2, 2016

Since we were little, one of my closest friends has regularly asked me what the word I've just used means, and I've got totally used to the idea that a term which seems commonplace for one person might appear recondite (ahahahaha, the temptation to keep doing that is strong) to someone else. The same goes with other bits of knowledge – he surprises me with the stuff he knows. We bring variety to each others' lives. And I guess that's also what reading new things does (and why it's delightful) – it's pleasurable to be introduced to new ways that things can be, and can be expressed.

So yes: keep looking things up. I notice that one of the most regular keyboard shortcuts I do is ^space D (which opens Dictionary here), so I can check a word or look for a synonym. Quite often I'll do it when I know what the word means; I like to look for nuances or alternative ways to use it. It's fun to notice just how many words many of us already know (and know how to use) but which we can't 'define' in any technically proficient way. I love it when my friend asks me what a word I just used means and I struggle to articulate it. A recent one was definitely 'ecumenical' – I mumbled something like "it's got something to do with the ways that different Christian churches agree or disagree about things they believe in", and he said he'd always assumed it had something to do with money, which I couldn't rule out.

Yes: keep reading widely. Some writers make a point of using a wide vocabulary – I remember when I first encountered his work thinking that Will Self was intentionally showing-off his knowledge of uncommon words until I read more people like him and realised that they all used terms like 'Brobdingnagian' quite casually (and frequently). I noticed that Anthony Burgess, Jonathan Meades and Self all seem to be united by deploying 'micturate' – I think they share a Joycean sense of word-play. I don't think there's a need to track down especially arcane writers, but it can be fun to read some authors who relish finding slightly unusual words. A tic of Salman Rushdie's is to have a character who regularly repeats what they've said (or thought) with synonymous expressions, as if trying to pin down their thoughts into the best version (or to utter the most perspicuous translation, as if they've thought it in one language and are trying to say it as accurately as possible in another). Jorge Luis Borges has lots of short stories which are about writers and writerly worlds – words and their layered meanings and the worlds that they create. Anthony Burgess has a trilogy of novels about a poet called Enderby (he micturates frequently) whose life is mostly a sort of inner-pursuit of all the things that words do and mean to him. I'm sure other mefites can suggest other particular authors who'll expose you to different kinds of vocabulary.

As others have suggested above, there are places online to give you a word of the day (Oxford Dictionaries have one here) . I don't know how easy it is to learn from these kinds of things – I'm not good at seeing a term and a definition and remembering them. I prefer to read articles and books and pick up new words in context, and then look them up once my friend points out that I probably don't know what they mean. But I do make a habit of reading Kory Stamper's blog harm•less drudg•ery (written by a lexicographer at Mirriam-Webster, previously), and I enjoy Helen Zaltzman's podcast The Allusionist (about etymology and language, previously).
posted by Joeruckus at 9:44 AM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

Academic papers are in a different world from simply having a large enough vocabulary to know about "milieu" or "métier." If you solely wanted to improve vocabulary, then I'd suggest reading more European literature. Academic writing seems to depend largely on words you would not use elsewhere so I'd suggest reading large amounts of research articles in the field you want to focus.
posted by JJ86 at 11:14 AM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

@Everyone: thank you all so much for these very helpful answers!
posted by matrushka at 11:21 AM on March 3, 2016

JJ86's great answer also made me think about reading nineteenth-century writing, which I've always found great for learning new words and nuances to familiar words.
posted by Miko at 1:41 PM on March 3, 2016 [1 favorite]

With vocabulary, there's learning new words, which has been pretty well covered in the answers here, and there's also increasing your working vocabulary. Your vocabulary is probably already huge but when speaking and writing you might not immediately make use of it all because we tend to use the words most common and familiar to us. Reading constantly and from varied sources changes this, especially older fiction and poetry, and even doing crossword puzzles. And obviously reading publications in your field will familiarize you with the working vocabulary common to that (sorry if that's too obvious but if you're reading those regularly and have no difficulty then this should put you at ease). Even if you're not encountering new words, encountering lots of varied words will put them in the forefront of your mind and make it easier for you to access and use these which is good not so that you can use fancy synonyms but so that you can use the word that most accurately conveys what you want to communicate.
posted by Polychrome at 2:28 AM on March 4, 2016

When I was in my early twenties and on a self-improvement binge, I decided I wanted to expand my vocabulary. Here's how I did it.

Whenever I came across a word I didn't know, I would look it up and add both the word and the definition to a document. Essentially it was a tiny home-made dictionary of rare and interesting words that I was in the process of learning. I would read through the document about once a day. Once I could look at the word and remember the definition, I would remove it from the list. Simple as that.
posted by dephlogisticated at 7:26 AM on March 4, 2016

But please do not think that to write a good thesis that you need to use more "fancy words." That presumption constitutes one of the contributing factors to the pervasiveness of written communication by members of the academic community that is less than fully intelligible to a broad cross-section of the public.

This, this, a thousand times this. As I tell my students (and I'm pretty sure I did not make this phrase up, but am not sure where I might have acquired it):

Never utilize "utilize" where you could use "use."
posted by dersins at 10:04 AM on March 4, 2016 [1 favorite]

If you want a great Quizlet class, MeMail me. I use Quizlet to help hundreds of students a year destroy the SAT Reading section, and I've put a lot of time and effort into my sets.
posted by Joseph Gurl at 4:22 PM on March 4, 2016

@Joseph Gurl: I might take you up on that! Thanks.
posted by matrushka at 7:26 AM on March 7, 2016 [1 favorite]

This may have been said already, but learn some Greek and Latin. An awful lot of English words have Greek and Latin derivatons (although, thinking about it, milieu and metier may not). But I find I can figure out what many unfamiliar words mean without resorting to a dictionary.
posted by Major Tom at 5:10 AM on March 8, 2016

Studying Latin, French, and Spanish in high school helped me. A book that focuses on roots as a way to increase vocabulary might be of use.
posted by EvelynU at 7:08 PM on April 2, 2016

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