How to Use Your Fancy Vocabulary
And Not Be Insufferable
Your two best strategies are forward transfer and filling the gaps.
Read on for details,
and subscribe here for a daily boost of practical vocab.
It's widely believed that vocabulary predicts salary: that the more words we know, the more money we make.* And since a flexible command of language is such an asset both professionally and socially, it's no surprise that adults young and old are making a conscious effort to learn more words.
By reading broadly, paying attention to powerful words both new and familiar, and taking the time to learn their exact meanings and applications, we're building extensive, flexible vocabularies that improve communication among friends and family and at work.
But often there's a painful gap between learning sophisticated words and actually putting them to use correctly.
Things get awkward.
So let's consider a few guidelines for getting the most out of your powerful vocabulary--while maintaining social harmony.
Don't let me give you the wrong idea, though. I love high-flying words, the kind that roll off the tongue acrobatically and deliver a thrill of accomplishment on their way, and I encourage you to use them! Imbroglio, labyrinthine, obsolescent.
I love listening to people who wield those words with grace and confidence.
But no one appreciates fancy words used willy-nilly:
Yikes. Let's prevent eye-rolls, sighs, and silent seething judgment as we put new words to work. Here's how:
1. Prioritize clarity over beauty in your words. Call something an error, not a misapprehension; a risk, not a Damoclean debacle. When a flashy word comes to mind and you're dying to use it, don't. Calling something recherché instead of pretentious is, well, pretentious, and your friends will want to slap you.
2. When you learn a new word, spend time looking up lots of example sentences for it. Just learning the definition alone means you'll probably use the word awkwardly. Searching Google News to see how journalists use your word or just pulling up examples on Vocabulary.com will do the trick.
3. When you're studying words, mentally rehearse how you might use them in real life. This is called forward transfer and is a powerful learning technique.
To do it, as you're learning a word, mentally apply it to every facet of your life to see how it fits. Use it concretely and abstractly. Use it seriously and facetiously. Use it for gentle sarcasm, for dramatic hyperbole, and for sharp comparisons.
Then you'll be ready to summon the word and use it gracefully when a conversation calls for it.
4. To really get better at thinking of the right words on the spot, find and fill the gaps in your vocabulary.
Instead of focusing only on how to apply the words you recently learned, flip your perspective. Look instead at how you're communicating, and find the gaps where you could be expressing ideas more effectively.
Reflect on emails you wrote, presentations you gave, and conversations you had with friends and coworkers, and figure out when it is that you struggle to say what you mean or say it well. When did you have to rephrase a message or explain yourself again because your listener didn't get it the first time?
When did you use the same word over and over, or when do you say "um" a lot? (Or whatever your habitual filler is, like "Well," or "Okay, so..." or "Going forward...")
Focus also on when you overuse intensifiers (so, very, really, totally, completely) or detractors (not quite, kind of, sort of, a little bit) or negatives (not, none, isn't, can't).
Do you resort to hyphenations or invented terms? ("Weak-looking," "hit-or-miss-y," "overly-edited.")
Do you sometimes sound like your younger self? ("Totally awesome," "like literally.")
All of these gaps in your expressive vocabulary are ready to be filled. How? With the dual luxuries of hindsight and the Internet.
Find the words that would have served you, the words that would have swept out the filler and modifiers and nixed the slang you've grown out of. If Thesaurus.com or Google isn't helping, try this subreddit.
Often you'll find that the words you're reaching for aren't even new; you may just need to focus on them so you can bring them to mind when needed.
Once you've found the words that fill your gaps, you'll even impress yourself with your clarity and precision.
5. When you're communicating through text, email, or any other written form, especially for work, sometimes the "perfect" word eludes you, so if it won't come to mind, switch strategies. Be willing to delete entire sentences to start over more clearly--as opposed to fiddling around trying to find an impressive word to go "right there."
In fact, being concise is often way more effective than dropping a dazzling vocabulary word. If you need a sentence to resonate, strip it down to its bare bones.
The simplest verbs, in particular, can move mountains. My favorites: fuel, render, and deter. (See more here.)
6. Delay the debut. When a conversation pops up that's perfect for trotting out an amazing new word, let me echo an exhortation from Charles Elster, the language expert: hold back, use a simpler word for now, and later on, double-check a dictionary to make sure you were about to pronounce it and use it right.
While there's something to be gained from landing that perfect word that both impresses your listeners and conveys your full meaning, there's more to be lost by flubbing the delivery.
Often we make incorrect assumptions about how a word is said just by reading it phonetically--and we have no idea that we're wrong. I still cringe to think of how I pronounced "ubiquitous" as if it were related to "uber."
Checking the audio pronunciation on Dictionary.com is fast and easy and prevents embarrassment.
7. Don't manufacture or steer conversations just so you can plop words into them. Maybe you recently learned raconteur and told yourself you'd use it today? Okay, but you risk annoying your friends.
8. Don't turn to the thesaurus to dress up a plain thought. The result is guaranteed to irritate.
9. If you have to add context clues or extra information just to make sure your listeners understand you, then don't even use the fancy word. Saying it and then explaining it, explicitly or not, is like grabbing your listener by the collar to shout "I'M SMART!"
10. Banish your pet words. Pay attention to these: the fancy ones you favor. You might be overextending them. If you're not sure what your pet words are, ask your significant other or best friend for the harsh truth.
In sum, how well you apply your vocabulary matters (and impresses) much more than how big and fancy it is.
Folks who use powerful words without grating on their listeners' nerves tend to choose an unusual, long, or foreign word if and only if it conveys an idea precisely: The long, dull movie decerebrated us; this app is inimitable; let's skip the palaver.
These high-power words serve best when they blend seamlessly into your speech or writing: when they communicate ideas so well that your listeners focus entirely on what you're saying, not how you're saying it.
So let's go forth and fearlessly employ the best words we can find!
If you'll invite me into your inbox, I'll bring you a sophisticated, useful word every day and show you how to use it. (Readers have said I make it easy to use "hard" words.)
Anyway, cheers! To your commitment to using great words with finesse, to your continual personal growth, and to social harmony.
Subscribe to "Make Your Point" for a daily vocabulary boost.
* It's often claimed (like you see here and here) that studies demonstrate a strong correlation between salary and strength of vocabulary, with the implication being that the more words you know, the higher paid you are, and with the second and sneakier implication being that if you go ahead and learn more words, then you'll get a pay raise.
As an enthusiast of vocabulary development, I'm eager to embrace this correlation: I want it to be valid and meaningful, and I admit that earlier in my career after having read about it a bunch of times in secondary sources, I swallowed it. But it's got some problems.
First, the studies examining that correlation between pay and vocabulary were done over 75 years ago by only one person (Johnson O'Connor) who had a self-confessed personal interest in the matter, and the studies weren't published in a peer-reviewed journal, meaning we can't be assured that his methods and conclusions were totally sound. His first published study is, in fact, quaintly short on statistics and demographics. The organization that O'Connor founded ran another study in the 80's--again, not peer-reviewed--which claimed a similar finding. It's all a good start, but the point is that the correlation needs to be replicated in peer-reviewed studies.
Here's the second problem: even as early as 1938, people started pointing out the flaw in the conclusion being drawn from O'Connor's research. Just because two things are correlated (like how much money you make and how many words you know) doesn't mean that one thing causes the other. In fact, all that O'Connor really claimed was that vocabulary is "an important concomitant of success." The problem comes when we interpret "concomitant of" as "requirement for," which isn't necessarily a valid leap. (Would O'Connor chide us for our sloppy understanding of the word "concomitant"?)
Regardless, many people still perceive a strong vocabulary as a measure of (and even a predictor of) professionalism and success. Personally, I've got a Google Scholar alert set up for any new studies citing O'Connor; I'm hoping people will eventually not just substantiate the correlation but also explore the reasons it exists. In the meantime, let's agree that knowing more words is probably a good thing when it comes to communicating and working effectively, even if it isn't guaranteed to make you rich.
The sources in question are, first, O'Connor's:
1. O'Connor, J. (1934). Vocabulary and success. Atlantic Monthly, 153.2 (Feb), 160-166.
2. O'Connor, J. (1940). Unsolved business problems. New York: Human Engineering Laboratory.
And the follow-up:
Smith, R.M., & Supanich, G.P. (1984). The vocabulary scores of company presidents. Technical Report No. 1984-1. Chicago: Johnson O'Connor Research Foundation.