How to Increase Your Vocabulary?

By Xah Lee. Date: ,

Are you a word lover? Do you subscribe to a-word-a-day? Are you preparing for SAT or GRE? If yes to any of the above, then you may find this word list useful. Else, do you swoon by the sway of your sensibility? Do you cackle for the pang of nettlesome far-outs? Do you dig the incomprehensible writs of a heart? Then, you need this page.

When I was learning English back in 1985, my methodology was to build a vocabulary and ignore all other aspects of the language. I reasoned that the essence of knowing a language is no more than understanding all the words. So, for the first few years I thumbed through English-Chinese dictionary hundred times a day as the primary means of learning the language. I disregarded any conventions and methodologies such as learning from ESL materials or progression from frequently used words to esoteric or literary vocabularies. (At the time, i did not even know that a language's vocabulary has these different classes. It was a simple naive logical thinking and headstrong will.) Now I know how wrong and inefficient I've been. The habit of writing down words and checking dictionaries nevertheless continued.

A Word about SAT

SAT used to stand for Scholastic Aptitude Test. Then was changed to Scholastic Assessment Test by the movement of social thinking, known as Political Correctness. The Aptitude in Scholastic Aptitude basically means brain size. So, if you have a low score, it implies that you are a moron, which does have some scientific soundness. However, today, it is wrong to call a cripple cripple or a idiot idiot. Also the test and the scoring has mutated significantly since its inception in USA 1926.

SAT is a necessity if you want to engage in pop universities in USA. If you can do or did well, fine, but otherwise screw it. There is a book about this controversial test. Recommended: None of the Above: The Truth Behind the SATs, by David Owen. Buy at amazon I read the first edition back around 1990. See also reports and analysis by Colin P Fahey, at He tried to answer all questions incorrectly.

Word Picking Advice

For those of you vocabulary rookies, I can give you a few advice:

Vocabulary Books

Princeton Review publishes a book named “Word Smart” Buy at amazon. There are quite a few vocabulary books, but beware that some of them are just compilation of esoteric words. I heartily recommend this one, which i read the first edition in the early 1990s. This book contains a selection of just the right words — frequently used but not obscure. They give a brief definition, usage example, and contains a short section that teaches you about the roots of English vocabulary.

Note that yours truely also have a compilation of juicy SAT words. At Wordy English: Vocabulary Compilation with Usage Examples.

Dictionary Software

Doesn't matter whether you study words for fun or for exams, a software dictionary on your computer is very convenient: Highlight a word, press a button, and ZAP you see its definition and synonyms. Click on any word and ZAP, you got cross-referenced. If you are in a dictionary look-up binge, just zap, zap, zap, and zaaaap! As fun as shooting aliens. I would highly recommend the electronic version of American Heritage Dictionary, and i would recommend against the highly popular Merriem-Webster's 9th Collegiate. Also, these dictionaries are available free online today.

See: Online English Dictionary Tools.

Do Not Memorize Word Lists. Read❕

Vocabulary is only one part of English. You should not learn English by studying words alone unless you are doing it for a short period in preparation for exams. Even if you like words for their own sake, I find that reading well written books or journals is the best way to learn all the connotations and nuances of words. Personally, I have read cover-to-cover every issue of Time Magazine from about 1993 to 1995. At first I read it for the purpose of increasing my vocabulary. Gradually, I found the magazine to be informative, and it became my means of understanding the world.

For many classic fictions and non-fictions annotated for vocabulary study, see: World Literature Classics.

Classic Novels = Useless for SAT

In the past I also fancied that by surveying classic literature that I might be able to master all the SAT type of words. (for example: Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, ….)

I envision this to have two advantages: ① that I would have read all the literature classics I liked. ② I would have obtained a well-rounded set of vocabulary at a level that I desire. I found out by experience that this assumption is not correct. One could read up all the works of Shakespeare or other classic fictions or non-fictions but still not able to understand much common words or phrases in modern journalism. This is so because English vocabulary is too large. Only a subsection is used in one type of literature.

If you find any mispelling in my list or any other wrong (morally, psychologically, or plainly), please hit me on the head with a digitized book. Seriously, if you like this page, please do send me a email telling me that I am beautiful (sic. Yes, I mean it!). If genie exists, I would wish for possession of supreme beauty. But today, I wish you to tell me so.