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How to Expand Your Vocabulary

Without SATs to study for, learning new words is a tough habit to form. But there are ways to do it that don’t involve course books.

Businessman Speaking

As copyeditor here at Gear Patrol, I’m responsible for the words. All the words. All the thousands of words that you read every day (if you’re loyal) on this esteemed publication. So by the nature of my job, it’s in my best interest to know enough words to fill an SAT coursebook. (To this day I’m convinced that “obfuscate” is the word that got me a 710 in critical reading.)

There are plenty who pay their bills with words — journalists, marketers, social media workers (someday there’ll be a tidy word for that) — and there are more than plenty who don’t. But monetary necessity needn’t be the sole prerequisite for a robust vocabulary. For instance, with Americans consuming more news via digital media, it’s good to identify when we’re being misled or manipulated with words (like how that last sentence could easily be replaced with “A wordy job isn’t the only reason you should know a lot of words”).

On a less cynical note, we all use email and text messaging, so strengthening vocabulary is just another way of empowering ourselves to communicate more efficiently and with clearer intention, and to better hear others. It also allows us to better understand ourselves, to hear and understand the words we use out of habit, and what they in turn say about us.

When you reach that point in life where you have no verbal tests to study for, you can easily find your language restricted to the routine setting of your life, limited from a lack of exposure to anything other than the day-to-day necessities. Breaking out of that takes effort, but there are ways. Here are a few.

1Get a dictionary app. Every English teacher I ever had told me I should keep a dictionary in my backpack at all times, never mind the fact that the sheer girth of a such a thing protruding from a bag is enough to give a kid scoliosis. Luckily, dictionaries are now available on every smart device you’re likely to own. Having the free Merriam Webster app on my phone has made it easy not only to check definitions on the go, but to quickly look up whether I was using a word correctly, in writing and in conversations with my girlfriend on the subway (to her chagrin).

Likewise, when you’re reading, don’t be lazy — look up words you don’t know. Flipping over to your dictionary app in mid-sentence won’t throw you off as much as you think; it’ll enhance your understanding of a sentence that uses a word you’re not 100 percent sure about, and your confidence in your grasp of whatever it is you’re reading. Similarly, your Kindle has a built-in dictionary that makes looking up words more intuitive than ever; you have no excuse not to use it.

2Don’t just read more — read outside of your comfort zone. Different authors from different walks of life will gravitate toward different words by nature of being different people, and different subjects will necessitate different words in being conveyed. So if you want a diverse vocabulary, read a wide and diverse array of authors. If you’re into the Russians, try South American magical realism for a change. If you’re an Anglophile, read some African transhumanist sci-fi. If you’re a Hemingway snob (lord knows we’ve got a few), try Aimee Bender.

3Get in touch with your roots (the Latin and Greek ones). This is a holdover from those SAT days, but it works. Over 60 percent of all English words have Latin or Greek roots. Knowing the common ones makes it that much easier to infer the meaning of words you don’t know off the top of your head, if you don’t have time to look them up — and if you do look them up, then they’ll stick out in your memory that much easier.

4Listen to more rap. The summer of my sophomore year in college I taught inner city kids literature in my hometown of Miami, in a non-profit summer school program. I can tell you one thing about the most well-spoken kids out of the 50 or so that I taught daily: they could all recite poetry from their English classes. And I can tell you another thing about my star pupil: she could sing and rap Nicki Minaj’s “Super Bass” by heart. Fierce.

Poetry is taught in schools because poems, at least when they’re on a page, are brain teasers. Poetry is to the lingual section of your brain what Sudoku is to the math-centric sections; in 2013 a study showed that while reading Shakespeare, unfamiliar words caused readers’ brain activity to spike and remain elevated for a number of phrases — far more so than when reading Shakespeare’s words translated into plain, non-metered speech. Internet literati will remember this informal study from last year, which puts the verbal breadth of several rappers’ work beyond the Bard; if constraint is the mother of creativity, then a beat is a hell of a muse. Spend a half hour listening to any of the upper-tier artists on the chart and following their lyrics on Genius and see if your brain doesn’t feel like it’s gotten a good workout. And if you don’t think learning slang is worthwhile, you clearly haven’t spent enough time on social media. Speaking of which…

5 Follow writers on social media. In mannerisms as in speech patterns, we take after our surrounding company — monkey see, monkey do. If you don’t have many verbose friends, you can make some new ones on Twitter (at least insofar as followers are friends).

A strong vocabulary makes 140 characters feel like Jack Kerouac’s famous scroll. The best writers can replace six words with one. Others (often journalists) ignore the whole 140-character thing entirely and write sprawling essays over multiple tweets (usually when they’re steamed up about something) — a little less impressive, but you’re still likely to learn a new word or two. The Guardian, The Telegraph and Kirkus have some good suggestions.

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