Have you ever been bedeviled by the thought that your supply of verbiage may be insufficiently copious to make you appear truly  erudite? (In other words, would you like a bigger vocabulary?) 

If the answer is yes, you're not alone, judging by the growing popularity of word games, word quizzes, websites devoted to word definitions and origins--and word-related articles on this website. 

The good news is that increasing your vocabulary isn't difficult, and, unlike many other fields of study, many of the things you can do to increase your knowledge of words are enough fun that you might do them anyway, even if they weren't educational and good for your brain.

Here are 11 habits that will increase your vocabulary and likely put a smile on your face at the same time:

1. Read.

It's a no-brainer that the more you read, the more likely you are to encounter words you don't already know. This effect is amplified if you expand your horizons and read books or articles outside your usual field of expertise, as well as outside the genres you normally choose. E-reader software such as Kindle or Kobo makes increasing your vocabulary particularly easy by allowing you to highlight and look up any unfamiliar word you encounter, or save it to look up later.

2. Study a foreign language.

This may sound counterintuitive. Why would you learn a new language in order to improve your vocabulary in English?  Because most languages are part of larger families, and English is no exception. Formed from the collision of Anglo-Saxon and Old French after the French-speaking Normans conquered England in 1066, our language has multiple roots and relations and draws its very large store of words from multitudes of other languages, including Greek, Latin, Spanish, German, Russian, and even one--"boondocks"--from my mother's native language, Tagalog. For maximum vocabulary-boosting effect, I suggest picking up a Romance (Latin-based) language if you don't yet know one, such as French, Spanish, or Italian. 

3. Travel.

Vocabularies and word usage vary from region to region, so traveling around the United States or Canada and keeping your ears open will likely expose you to words, as well as word combinations, you haven't encountered before. And, of course, if you visit Britain, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, English-speaking Africa, the Caribbean, or other foreign lands where English is spoken, your chances of learning new words increases exponentially.

4. Watch (or listen to) British programming.

Because the British use English slightly differently from us Americans, listening to their news or other programs can introduce you to words you don't know. Extra points if you choose a period piece. (If you've never dived into Downton Abbey, here's your excuse.)

5. Take in a Shakespeare play.

The Bard of Avon is said to have had the largest vocabulary of any writer in English. In fact, some people argue that one way to tell that a Shakespeare play is authentic is if it contains at least one word that appears nowhere else in his work. So in addition to making you laugh or maybe cry, watching a Shakespeare play is guaranteed to present you with words you don't already know.

In many communities (most notably, of course, New York City) free Shakespeare performances are a summer staple. But if you're not lucky enough to live somewhere free Shakespeare is offered, all you need to do is queue up Netflix or some other video service--many Shakespeare plays have been produced as movies. (Kenneth Branagh's production of Henry Vis a great place to start.)

6. Watch documentaries about words.

While you're in your video library, take a look at the many wonderful documentaries and miniseries about language that can entertain you and dramatically boost your vocabulary at the same time. Wikipedia provides a useful list. My favorites are Spellbound, Word Wars, and of course The Story of English. (And, although it's not about English, The Linguists is about exactly what I'd like to have done if I weren't a writer.)

7. Do a crossword puzzle.

Like learning a foreign language, doing crossword puzzles has proven brain benefits, and it can be very addictive. The granddaddy of American crosswords, The New York Times crosswords, start out easy on Monday and get progressively harder through Saturday, with a larger puzzle that usually involves wordplay on Sunday, so you can pick the right day of the week for your skill level.

8. Play word games.

Both Scrabble and its super popular online counterpart Words With Friends will pretty much force you to expand your vocabulary because you just can't win at these games without using uncommon words. (Today I played "azole" in a Words With Friends match--it's a class of chemical compounds with antifungal qualities.)

9. Use your inbox.

There are several sites that use email to help you increase your vocabulary. My favorite is A.Word.A.Day (AWAD), which sends you a vocabulary word every day along with etymology and sample usage. Wordnik provides a similar service. Ink Paste also uses email but takes a different approach. It invites you to enter a word you're hoping to retain (if you don't have one it will suggest some). It then emails you the word and its definition, daily at first, then at longer and longer intervals, encouraging your brain to start retaining the new word.

10. Try a vocabulary-building mobile app.

Vocabulary.com, which quizzes you on words it provides and can include words you're trying to retain as well, is one highly popular option. And there are many more out there for both Android and iOS.

11. Take an online quiz.  

This quiz, which gets progressively harder through 50 questions and invites users to share their results on Facebook, is trending rapidly at the moment. Or you can try Free Rice, which not only teaches you vocabulary words but donates 10 grains of rice to fight world hunger for every correct answer you provide.

Try out any of these habits, find the ones you enjoy most, and make them part of your routine. You'll find learning new words can be a lot more fun than you thought.

Published on: Jul 13, 2016
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