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How much do you know about vocabulary?
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The February 14, 2000, issue of Time magazine reported some disturbing news: in 1950 the average 14-year-old had a vocabulary of 25,000 words. By 1999, the average 14-year-old's vocabulary had dropped to only 10,000 words, less than half. This is disturbing because a person's vocabulary reflects his or her overall general knowledge. This is why I.Q. tests (intelligence tests), college entrance exams, and many other tests contain vocabulary sections. Think of people whom you consider to be smart. The odds are they have good vocabularies. (If you speak more than one language, you have two vocabularies. This gives you an advantage over people who speak only a single language.) Read the following information to learn more about vocabulary.

Why should I spend time improving my vocabulary?
Did you know that the amount of money you earn in your lifetime is related to the size of your vocabulary? Decades of research by the Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation, an independent, nonprofit scientific research and educational organization, confirm that income and vocabulary size are correlated. Think of every word you add to your vocabulary as being like a deposit you make in your bank account. A powerful vocabulary allows you to express your thoughts clearly and precisely. It enhances the impression you make at job interviews. For better or worse, people will make judgments about you based on the size of your vocabulary and how accurately you use words. Doesn't it make sense to turn your vocabulary into an asset, a tool that works for you?

   Here's some happy news: vocabulary knowledge is not an aptitude (a natural ability or special talent). Anyone can learn words and expand his or her vocabulary. It's never too late to improve your vocabulary. Most people develop their vocabularies by reading widely and by paying attention to new words they see and hear.

   Like anything of value, developing your vocabulary requires time and effort, but the rewards are great. A strong vocabulary allows you to

  • understand more of what you read;
  • understand more of what you hear;
  • paraphrase (put into your own words) information you read and hear;
  • speak more intelligently and precisely;
  • communicate more effectively in writing;
  • score higher on tests, especially essay tests;
  • feel more confident about your speaking and writing;
  • create a positive impression at job interviews;
  • advance on the job and earn more money over the course of your lifetime.

   In each of your college courses, you will learn a wealth of specialized terms. Along with learning academic terms, you should also make an effort to add general words to your vocabulary. Most people's vocabularies are weakest in verbs. Do you use the same handful of colorless verbs--such as got--over and over again? Are you aware that there is always a better, stronger, more interesting, and more precise verb than got ? If you want to see a dramatic improvement in your vocabulary, add verbs.

What are passive and active vocabularies?
When you are learning new words, you might find yourself thinking, "Who uses these words? I never hear anyone using them!" People do, in fact, use them. The reason you don't hear them is because the words don't mean anything to you. Once you know their meaning, you start seeing and hearing those words everywhere! They were always there, of course, but now you hear them because you recognize them.

   Everyone has an active vocabulary that consists of words the person actually uses when speaking and writing. Everyone also has a larger passive vocabulary. A person's passive vocabulary consists of words the person understands when he or she reads and hears them but doesn't actively use. One goal of yours should be to move words from your passive vocabulary into your active vocabulary. You do that just the way you would expect: by using those words in your own speaking and writing.

What is the size of the typical person's vocabulary?
How many words are there in the English language? More than a million! The most complete English dictionary, The Oxford English Dictionary, has about 750,000 entries (words, abbreviations, and names that are defined).

   What about the size of a person's vocabulary? It is difficult to measure vocabulary size accurately. Total vocabulary size varies greatly from person to person, but people typically use about 5,000 words in their speech and about twice that many in their writing. A college-educated speaker of English could have a vocabulary as large as 80,000 words. Shakespeare, whose body of work is considered the greatest in English literature, used more than 33,000 words in his plays. This is an astonishing number, especially considering that he was writing 400 years ago.

   Vocabulary growth varies greatly among students. Many students whose culture differs from the mainstream one add vocabulary at slower rates than other students. This means that over time, the gap between their vocabularies and other students' vocabularies grows increasingly large. If you are behind in vocabulary, now is the perfect time to begin closing the gap!

Check Your Understanding

Try this quick check to see what you understood from the selection.

Between 1950 and 2000, the average 14-year-old's vocabulary
A)decreased significantly.
B)increased significantly.
A person's vocabulary reflects his or her
A)overall general knowledge.
B)college exam scores.
Most people's vocabularies are weakest in
Which type of vocabulary contains more words?
A)a person's active vocabulary
B)a person's passive vocabulary
The English language contains
A)more than 750,000 words, but less than a million words.
B)more than a million words.

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