English Vocabulary

When you hear the word "vocabulary," you might think of a baby learning new words and improving their communication skills. Indeed, child language development is largely concerned with vocabulary growth. 

English Vocabulary English Vocabulary

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    However, vocabulary is not only an important aspect of communication for infants; older children, teenagers, and adults can also improve their communication and expression skills by enhancing their vocabulary.

    English Vocabulary, three children talking, StudySmarterPeople of all ages can increase their vocabulary to improve their communication

    We'll be focusing on English vocabulary, looking at English vocabulary word examples, more advanced vocabulary choices for commonly used words, and some methods for improving one's vocabulary.

    Use of Vocabulary in English

    Before we look at some commonly used vocabulary words, let's check out a quick definition for the word vocabulary:

    Vocabulary refers to the words that make up a language. Each language and dialect has its own vocabulary.

    In the English language, there are approximately 171,150 words currently in use. The average English-speaking adult will have between 20,000 – 35,000 words in their vocabulary, and between 200 and 400 of these will be core words.

    Core words are the words that make up the majority of language-based communication. Some examples of core words in the English vocabulary include "I", "go", "on", "that", "come", "more", "mine", and "stop".

    English Vocabulary Words

    In the English language, there are many words we use far more than others, perhaps without even realizing it. These words include articles ("a", "an", and "the") and conjunctions ("and", "for", "but", and "so"). For the sake of this article, however, let's look at some examples of commonly used nouns, verbs, and adjectives in English.

    NounsVerbsAdjectives
    TimeRunNice
    FoodEatGood
    Person/ PeopleLoveBad
    FriendSleepImportant
    WorldMakeSmall
    FamilyThinkFast
    HandFeelOld
    ProblemKnowYoung
    GroupWorkDifferent
    FactSayScary

    English Vocabulary Advanced

    In the above section, we saw some examples of commonly used English vocabulary words, but if we want to elevate our language use and extend our vocabulary, there are some alternatives we can use.

    These "alternatives", or words that mean the same thing as each other, are called synonyms.

    English Vocabulary, dictionary, StudySmarterUnderstanding the meaning of words can help us to identify appropriate synonyms.

    Using more interesting synonyms for common words is an excellent way to improve the nuance of our expression. Here are some more advanced synonyms for some of the examples used in the section above:

    Nouns

    Verbs

    Adjectives

    Problem – Issue

    Run – Sprint

    Nice – Fantastic

    Friend – Companion

    Love – Adore

    Fast – Swift

    Time – Era

    Work – Toil

    Old – Ancient

    World – Globe

    Sleep – Slumber

    Important – Crucial

    Fact – Certitude

    Make – Create

    Scary – Terrifying

    Can you think of any other alternatives for these words? Which ones do you think sound more appealing? It is also worth noting that not all synonyms for words will fit in all contexts. For example, if someone asked you what the time was, it wouldn't make sense for them to say, "What's the era?". However, if they wanted to know about the beginning of a significant period of time, they could say something like, "When did the era of Christianity begin?"

    English Vocabulary History

    There are several key periods of the evolution of English, including Old English, Middle English, and Modern English. New English words can also enter our vocabulary in several ways, including through slang and loanwords from other languages.

    English vocabulary also evolves as new meanings for existing words and phrases develop through the use of:

    Academic English:

    Academic English is the type of English we use to report on or discuss academic topics and is usually aimed at academic audiences (such as lecturers and students).

    Academic English consists of vocabulary including cohesive devices (therefore, moreover, furthermore), reporting verbs (suggested, proposed, illustrates), and action verbs (analyze, investigate, interpret), amongst other subject-specific and research-based words.

    Idioms:

    An idiom is a phrase that typically has figurative meanings, often unrelated to the words they consist of.

    e.g., "She was over the moon!" This simply means that she was really happy and has nothing to do with the actual moon.

    Proverbs:

    A proverb is a short, punchy saying that imparts a well-known truth or piece of advice.

    e.g., "Honesty is the best policy."

    Old English Vocabulary

    The general English vocabulary is always changing. New words are continually being added to the dictionary and people's language use. The words we commonly use now are not the same as the ones used in the past. To illustrate this, here are some examples of Old English vocabulary words that would have been used between the 5th and 11th centuries:

    Old English WordsMeaning
    ErstwhileRelating to a time in the past
    HitherHere; this place
    PannikinA small pan
    WightA human; a person
    StalwartPhysically strong
    OftOften; frequently

    Middle English

    Just as Old English had its own vocabulary, so too did Middle English. Middle English was spoken between the 12th and 15th centuries. These are some common examples of Middle English vocabulary:

    Middle English WordsMeaning
    AnonAt once
    EverichEvery
    LiteLittle; small in stature
    ShaltowYou shall; you will
    EchoEach one
    UnnetheScarcely; uncommonly

    Modern English

    This is the kind of English we're familiar with and use today. Modern English is always growing, and the words that continually enter Modern English also alter and expand upon our vocabulary. There are several key ways that words come into the Modern English vocabulary:

    Slang

    Slang is a significant source of new words in English, and as slang words become more widely used, they sometimes enter the dictionary.

    For example, some new words that have only entered the dictionary in recent years and have become widely used include:

    • selfie – a photo of oneself, taken by oneself
    • unfriend – to remove someone as a contact on social media
    • troll – to harass or make fun of someone on the internet
    • flex – to boast or brag about something

    Loanwords

    Did you know that over 70% of English words come from other languages? Some of the most common contributors to English are Greek, Latin, and French, and a lot of English comprises loanwords, roots, and affixes from these languages.

    Loanword - A word assimilated into one language from another with little to no alteration.

    Here are some examples of loanwords from other languages:

    LatinGreekFrench
    AgendaAcrobatCafe
    ButterDemocracyHabit
    JuvenileComedyDéjà-vu
    ImaginaryGalaxyToilet
    Post MortemMarathonGrand Prix

    English Vocabulary Examples

    There are four key subsets to consider when looking at English vocabulary examples. These four types of vocabulary are: writing, speaking, reading, and listening. These four vocabulary types can be divided into active and passive vocabulary.

    Active vocabulary refers to the words that a person uses themselves.

    Passive vocabulary refers to the words that a person understands but might not use.

    We'll look at each of the four types of vocabulary in turn:

    Writing

    The act of writing can be a combination of active and passive vocabulary, as we sometimes write words that we might not use in spoken conversation. For example, if we are writing a research paper on a complex scientific topic, we are likely to use highly specialized and scientific words in the paper that we wouldn't usually use in our day-to-day speech.

    "Biotechnology," "variances," and "dissemination" might be words that you'd use in a research paper but probably aren't words that you actively use when speaking (unless, of course, you're a scientist or researcher).

    In more general writing tasks, such as emailing a friend or writing a shopping list, we tend to use our active vocabulary more.

    English Vocabulary, Writing, StudySmarterWriting is a form of active and passive vocabulary.

    Speaking

    Speaking is usually based on active vocabulary. This is because when we talk, we talk about things we know. The words we use in speech are the ones we understand.

    In a conversation with a friend, we might talk about work, school, hobbies, and our families. These words are part of our active vocabulary because we use them all the time.

    There are some exceptions (as always!), and occasionally, we might use passive vocabulary in speech. Situations such as this include:

    • Asking questions or obtaining clarification – "What does accrual mean?"

    • Discussing complex or unusual topics – "I watched a documentary about wormholes the other day."

    Reading

    When we read, the words we encounter may be part of our active and passive vocabularies. This is because we understand most of what we read but might come across a word here or there that we don't know the meaning of. If we can 'decipher' the meaning of unknown words based on context, they become part of our passive vocabulary. As our understanding of these new words improves, they might become part of our active vocabulary if we begin using them ourselves.

    Listening

    Listening falls mostly under the active vocabulary umbrella as we are likely to understand and use most of the words we hear in conversation. If someone says a word we understand, but don't use in our own speech, then this word is part of our passive vocabulary.

    James: "I went to the store the other day and bought some things to make lasagne, but when I got to the cashier, I realized I didn't have my wallet."

    As you're listening to James speak, you'll understand these words, and they are probably words that you use yourself quite regularly, making them active vocabulary words. If James had said a word you don't use but still understood, this would be a passive vocabulary word.

    English Vocabulary Improvement

    To wrap up, we'll look at some methods of English vocabulary improvement. Enhancing your vocabulary is a great way to become a more effective communicator, and it will also help you to understand different concepts more easily. Here are some strategies you can use to increase your vocabulary:

    • Read widely. Not only is it important to read often, but reading a wide range of different materials can introduce you to new words and help to improve your understanding of different subjects. Aim to read a variety of fictional and non-fictional materials across a range of forms (such as news articles, poetry, blogs, reference books, novels, etc.).

    • Write often. Writing is a great way to help you to use different kinds of words that you might not naturally use in conversation. Practicing writing can help you to improve your understanding of and increase your confidence in using new words.

    • Use a thesaurus. A thesaurus is essentially a dictionary of synonyms and is a fantastic resource for learning new alternatives for commonly used words. By trying to use more interesting synonyms for common words, you can increase your vocabulary and improve your written and verbal expression.

    English Vocabulary, books, StudySmarterReading widely is a great way to improve your vocabulary.

    English Vocabulary - Key Takeaways

    • The English vocabulary is the collection of words that an English speaker knows and uses to communicate.
    • The general vocabulary of a population can change over time as new words are added and old ones become disused.
    • Old English had a very different vocabulary from Modern English.
    • There are four types of vocabulary: reading, writing, speaking, and listening.
    • We can improve our vocabulary by reading a lot, writing frequently, and using a thesaurus to incorporate more synonyms into our language.
    Frequently Asked Questions about English Vocabulary

    How can I improve my vocabulary?

    You can improve your vocabulary by:


    • reading a wide range of materials, and reading often
    • writing more frequently
    • using more interesting synonyms for commonly used words

    What are 20 vocabulary words?

    There are thousands and thousands of words in the English vocabulary but 20 examples include: 


    • world
    • family
    • I
    • that
    • problem
    • small
    • important
    • scary
    • different
    • love
    • grow
    • animal
    • home
    • and
    • it
    • eat
    • run
    • sleep
    • allowed
    • nice


    The English vocabulary is made up of many different word types including nouns, verbs, adjectives, conjunctions, and articles.

    What are the four types of vocabulary?

    The four types of vocabulary are:


    • writing
    • reading
    • speaking
    • listening

    How many core words are there?

    The average person has between 200 and 400 core words in their vocabulary. These are the words that make up the majority of their communication. 

    What are active and passive vocabularies?

    An active vocabulary is the words that a person knows, understands, and uses. A passive vocabulary is the words that a person understands but may not use. 

    Test your knowledge with multiple choice flashcards

    True or false, it's always possible to directly translate phrases?

    Fill in the blank:Most bilingual dictionaries are _____.

    Fill in the blank:When searching for a word in a bilingual dictionary, you should look for its ____ ____.

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    Team English Vocabulary Teachers

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    • Checked by StudySmarter Editorial Team
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