The Importance of Vocabulary in Writing
Every good mechanic has a toolbox full of tools. Some tools are used more than others, but every one has a specific purpose. In much the same way, writers have a “toolbox.” This “toolbox” is constantly growing and is filled with items like grammar, punctuation, and capitalization rules; figurative language; rhyme; rhythm; and…vocabulary. Just as really good mechanics can pull out the right tools to make a good engine even more powerful, good writers can pull out the right tools at the right time to make good writing even more powerful. One tool that can “power up” your writing is a strong vocabulary.
Why is a Strong Vocabulary Important?
We use spoken and written words every single day to communicate ideas, thoughts, and emotions to those around
us. Sometimes we communicate successfully, and sometimes we’re not quite so successful. “That’s not what I meant!” becomes our mantra (an often repeated word or phrase). However, a good vocabulary can help us say what we mean.
Let’s say that you are outside in your yard and see a large black car stop in the road. You can see four tinted windows on one side of the car, and you assume there are four tinted windows on the other side, too. Just then, the driver’s door opens, and a man wearing white gloves steps out. He walks to the back of the car and looks underneath. He shrugs his shoulders, climbs back into the car, and drives away.
After you remember to close your mouth, which has been hanging open, you run next door to tell your friend what you saw. What do you say? If you know a couple of key words, you can quickly explain to this person what you saw. Instead of describing the number of windows and the length of the car, you could simply say that you saw a black limousine (a long, luxurious car). Then, instead of describing the man with the white gloves, you could say you saw the chauffeur (someone paid to drive a car or limousine) walk to the back of the car. Knowing these key words can help you quickly and effectively communicate your meaning.
More info on Descriptive Writing
When you’re faced with a writing assignment, a good vocabulary is an indispensable (very important or necessary) tool. If you have several synonyms (words with similar meanings) in your repertoire (“toolbox”), you’ll be able to choose the best word for the job. Avoid vague words like “stuff” or “things” when you write. These words do not give the reader a good sense of your meaning. Also, use strong verbs that give the reader good information.
Here’s an example:
- POOR: People do a lot of things.
- BETTER: People perform a lot of tasks.
Ways that having a strong vocabulary helps when writing include:
- being able to choose more descriptive words to help your reader envision what you are describing.
- being able to adapt your writing for your audience (e.g., simpler words for children and more complex words for college students).
- creating more variety in paragraphs and sentences with vocabulary words which keep your reader interested in what you have to say.
More info on Sentence Variety
Increasing Your Vocabulary
If you don’t have a strong vocabulary yet, the first way you can develop one is with a couple of tools: a thesaurus and a dictionary. A thesaurus (a resource that lists synonyms and antonyms of words) is a helpful tool, but it is essential (very important and necessary) that you use a dictionary along with it. For example, imagine that I want to say that putting an engine together is difficult. However, I want a more descriptive word than “difficult.” What other word could I use? A thesaurus might give me choices like these: complex, intricate, tricky, and thorny. Do I know what those words mean, though? That’s where a dictionary comes in.
The Merriam Webster Online Dictionary gives these definitions (among others):
- complex: hard to separate, analyze, or solve
- intricate: having many complexly interrelating parts or elements
- tricky: requiring skill, knack, or caution
- thorny: full of difficulties or controversial points
Notice that each word has a slightly different meaning. Which meaning seems to work best when talking about an engine? Since an engine has many complexly interrelating (connected together like a puzzle) parts, the word “intricate” seems to be a great choice. Putting an engine together can definitely be intricate work. My choice is made. The thesaurus and dictionary have saved the day and have helped me develop my vocabulary!
Another way to develop a strong vocabulary is to read books with rich vocabulary. These books will help you see the words in context (in their natural settings). The context can help you guess the meanings of the words and can give you a good sense of how they’re used.
Be sure to pay attention to vocabulary words as you read. Write down words that you don’t know and look them up. Try to find them elsewhere, and write down the sentences you find. Listen for them in the world around you. Write down the sentences that you hear. Study these words when you can, and try to use them in your speaking and writing.
Another good idea is to keep a word journal. Try to incorporate interesting words into your journal entry for the day (or week). If you’re not sure if you’re using the word correctly, ask a parent, a teacher, or a brainy friend.
Vocabulary games are another great way to develop your vocabulary. You can find hundreds of ways to build your vocabulary. Who doesn’t love playing games? And these games have the added benefit of helping you add to your writer’s “toolbox.” Do you have difficulty with homophones (words that sound alike)? Then try these homophone games. You can even bone up on synonyms (words with similar meanings). Learning the meanings of root words is another way you can strengthen your vocabulary skills, so try these games and see what you know. Strengthening your vocabulary doesn’t have to be boring!
Time4Writing can Help
Online courses like Time4Writing’s mechanics and writing courses have interactive games like the vocabulary ones in the above links. These games will help you practice new concepts in a fun and lasting way. And working one-on-one with a Time4Writing teacher is a great way to get feedback on your writing, including your vocabulary. Work on developing and strengthening your vocabulary, and keep your writer’s “toolbox” full!
More info on Grammar and Mechanics
When taking the ACT essay section, students have 45 minutes to write a well-reasoned argumentative essay about a given prompt. The new ACT Essay prompts tend to be about “debate” topics — two sides of an issue are presented, with no obviously “right” side. Oftentimes, these subjects carry implications for broader issues such as freedom or morality. Test-takers are expected to convey some stance on the issue and support their argument with relevant facts and analysis.
In addition to some of the more obvious categories, like grammar and structure, students’ essays are also evaluated on their mastery of the English language. One way to demonstrate such mastery is through the correct usage of advanced vocabulary words. Below are 50 above-average vocabulary words sorted by the contexts in which they could most easily be worked into an ACT essay.
Context 1: Factual Support For ACT Essay
These words can easily be used when stating facts and describing examples to support one’s argument. On ACT essays, common examples are trends or patterns of human behavior, current or past events, and large-scale laws or regulations.
- Antecedent – a precursor, or preceding event for something – N
- Bastion – an institution/place/person that strongly maintains particular principles, attitudes, or activities – N
- Bellwether – something that indicates a trend – N
- Burgeon – to begin to grow or increase rapidly – V
- Catalyst – an agent that provokes or triggers change – N
- Defunct – no longer in existence or functioning – Adj.
- Entrenched – characterized by something that is firmly established and difficult to change – Adj.
- Foster – to encourage the development of something – V
- Galvanize – to shock or excite someone into taking action – V
- Impetus – something that makes a process or activity happen or happen faster – N
- Inadvertent – accidental or unintentional – Adj.
- Incessant – never ending; continuing without pause – Adj.
- Inflame – to provoke or intensify strong feelings in someone – V
- Instill – to gradually but firmly establish an idea or attitude into a person’s mind – V
- Lucrative – having a large reward, monetary or otherwise – Adj.
- Myriad – countless or extremely large in number – Adj.
- Precipitate – to cause something to happen suddenly or unexpectedly – V
- Proponent – a person who advocates for something – N
- Resurgence – an increase or revival after a period of limited activity – N
- Revitalize – to give something new life and vitality – V
- Ubiquitous – characterized by being everywhere; widespread – Adj.
- Watershed – an event or period that marks a turning point – N
Context 2: Analysis
These words can often be used when describing common patterns between examples or casting some form of opinion or judgement.
- Anomaly – deviation from the norm – N
- Automaton – a mindless follower; someone who acts in a mechanical fashion – N
- Belie – to fail to give a true impression of something – V
- Cupidity – excessive greed – Adj.
- Debacle – a powerful failure; a fiasco – N
- Demagogue – a political leader or person who looks for support by appealing to prejudices instead of using rational arguments – N
- Deter – to discourage someone from doing something by making them doubt or fear the consequences – V
- Discredit – to harm the reputation or respect for someone – V
- Draconian – characterized by strict laws, rules and punishments – Adj.
- Duplicitous – deliberately deceitful in speech/behavior – Adj.
- Egregious – conspicuously bad; extremely evil; monstrous and outrageous – Adj.
- Exacerbate – to make a situation worse – V
- Ignominious – deserving or causing public disgrace or shame – Adj.
- Insidious – proceeding in a subtle way but with harmful effects – Adj.
- Myopic – short-sighted; not considering the long run – Adj.
- Pernicious – dangerous and harmful – Adj.
- Renegade – a person who betrays an organization, country, or set of principles – N
- Stigmatize – to describe or regard as worthy of disgrace or disapproval – V
- Superfluous – unnecessary – Adj.
- Venal – corrupt; susceptible to bribery – Adj.
- Virulent – extremely severe or harmful in its effects – Adj.
- Zealot – a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals – N
Context 3: Thesis and Argument
These words are appropriate for taking a stance on controversial topics, placing greater weight on one or the other end of the spectrum, usually touching on abstract concepts, and/or related to human nature or societal issues.
- Autonomy – independence or self governance; the right to make decisions for oneself – N
- Conundrum – a difficult problem with no easy solution – N
- Dichotomy – a division or contrast between two things that are presented as opposites or entirely different – N
- Disparity – a great difference between things – N
- Divisive – causing disagreement or hostility between people – Adj.
- Egalitarian – favoring social equality and equal rights – Adj.
Although it’s true that vocabulary is one of the lesser criteria by which students’ ACT essays are graded, the small boost it may give to a student’s score could be the difference between a good score and a great score. For those who are already confident in their ability to create and support a well-reasoned argument but still want to go the extra mile, having a few general-purpose, impressive-sounding vocabulary words up one’s sleeve is a great way to tack on even more points.
To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Angela is a student at Cornell College of Engineering. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as ACT Verbal Division Manager. She enjoys teaching a variety of subjects and helping students realize their dreams.