One of the reasons I began this blog is because I have a passion for writing, grammar, linguistics, and the hope to improve your own writing–however little or much that encompasses your life. Whether we like it or not, and fairly or unfairly, people will judge us based on our grammar and spelling in something as simple as an email. So, books, blogs, and that company memo aside, it’s best that we’re wary of our writing even during the most mundane task. And there’s no better way to do that than empowering ourselves with the greatest tool of all: vocabulary.
Recently, I was reading linguist David Crystal’s book The English Language and came across a passage about William Shakespeare’s estimated vocabulary versus the average person’s, but now I can’t find it, and am essentially rereading the book in search of it (that’s what I get for not bookmarking it–lesson learned). Therefore, instead I found some useful sites opining on the very subject, including this one, which estimates Shakespeare knew approximately 66,534 words; and this one, citing that the typical person has a spoken vocabulary of about 5,000, a written vocabulary of roughly 10,000, and that the average fourteen-year-old’s vocabulary decreased from 25,000 in 1950 to a mere 10,000 in 1999. Now, Shakespeare is more than the sum of his words, and you may not aspire to be him, but this comparison should at the very least point to the correlation between a good vocabulary and good writing.
OK, great–so, how do you get there? Well, you can either open up a dictionary daily (not a bad thing, albeit mundane–unless you’re a grammar geek such as myself), or you can read. And, no, your social media site of choice doesn’t count. I’m talking about something substantial, exhibiting many (new) words, and the way they coalesce with one another. You know: books. We live in a world where information is at our fingertips; one where we likely don’t go into any decision blindly, so why should we go into our daily lives of text messages, emails, and social media posts with the shades drawn? The only way one can truly improve their vocabulary is to interact with different words regularly, and there’s no better way to do so than reading a good book.
I frequently hear people say, “I don’t like to read.” And a 2014 study by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics shows they’re not lying, as the average American spends only nineteen minutes a day reading, with Americans ages twenty-five to thirty-four (eight minutes) and teenagers (four) reading even less. Compare that to the three hours per day that the average American watches TV, and it’s no surprise there’s so much bad writing and grammar out there. As someone who, too, likes his particular TV shows, my take from this is that we’d do well to watch TV a little less, and read a little more. Personally, I like to read at least three books a month, but merely reading one will offer improvement. And that one book per month (approximately ten pages per day) could be enough to set one apart–especially in a professional setting–by improving one’s ability at written communications.
Don’t know what book to start with? No problem; my book club has gone through plenty of good reads over the past year and I’m happy to suggest a few of my favorites:
- The North Water, by English author Ian McGuire
- City of Thieves, by American David Benioff (of Game of Thrones fame)
- Exist West, by Pakistani Mohsin Hamid
- Station Eleven, by Canadian Emily St. John Mandel
All are fiction, and while I also read plenty of non-fiction, these were strictly the best written books I’ve read in the past twelve months. Not only are they all great stories, but the breadth of language used, and the artful way they’re each composed, makes them the great novels they are. What’s more, each compelled me to have my dictionary app available at all times, though if you’re struggling to get into reading I’d start with a notepad and a pencil (and look up the words when you’re finished) so you don’t interrupt your enjoyment, because books are meant to be enjoyed. And that’s the point: to actively enjoy doing something, while passively improving your vocabulary, and ultimately your writing.
Want to test your vocabulary? Check out this cool vocabulary test.
Questions? Contact me offline, or in the comments below.
And as always, thanks for reading.