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Why You Should Read With A Dictionary

Use it or lose it

Use it or lose it

Depending on who you ask, the average person has a vocabulary between 3,000 and 30,000 words. Most “authoritative” books that are supposed to improve your vocabulary suggest between 3,000 and 10,000. The more education you have, the higher your vocabulary typically gets. This is not necessarily because more formal education makes you smarter, but because the more education you have, the more specialized your vocabulary becomes. By the eighth year of med-school, doctors may not be increasing their general man-on-the-street vocabulary, but they add tons of medical terms to the arsenal.

What is the best way to improve your vocabulary? Is it by purchasing a bunch of vocab-building programs? Maybe, but I’ve never done that. I would suggest that your humble dictionary is the greatest and most underused tool for building your knowledge of words and their meanings.

Why you should care about improving your vocabulary

  • There are concepts and ideas that you owe it yourself (and your society) to be conversant with
  • Many of these concepts and ideas can only be understood through certain words
  • If you don’t know those words, you can’t express your opinions on those concepts or issues
  • If you can’t express your opinions and verbalize (or write) your thoughts, you have to rely on someone else to do it for you
  • You better hope you can trust the people who interpret your information for you

An acquaintance recently yammered in my ear for an hour about how screwed up the American Electoral college system is. The irony is that this person is more right than he knows, but he can’t begin to tell you why the system is screwy: only that it is. Think about the phrase “electoral college.” Do you know what it means? Do you really?

Ask yourself electoral means, or Google it. Now ask yourself what college means, or Google it. Each word is easy enough to grasp on its own, but together they mean something different. If you encounter the phrase during some light bedtime civics study before you turn the light out, maybe you can get the meaning from context…but maybe you can’t.

You don't have to wonder

Quit wondering and look it up

Ask yourself: how frightening would it be if only politicians could express and engage with political ideas? (insert shiver here…). These sorts of fears are at the core of books like 1984. Many literary visions of nightmare-futures involve the control of information from the top…as well as the loss of understanding at the bottom.

Your options when you read words you don’t know

  1. Skip over it and hope that context (the surrounding words and sentences) will clarify the meaning
  2. Take a second to look it up

Possible consequences of skipping over a word

  • Context does clarify it and all is well
  • Context does not clarify it and you either press through or give up and turn out the light

Cumulative brain fatigue

I’m not going to quote science at you because I’m lazy and dumb, but this has been my experience: when I skip over too many words, my brain gets exhausted. The result is that my brain literally forces me to stop sooner than I want to. No matter if I planned on reading for an hour. Something happens when I skip over too many words hoping for understanding that doesn’t come. It freaks out my mind to the point where it rebels and quits trying to comprehend things. It says “This strain is not worth it” and refuses to help anymore.

But what if you look the words up?

  • You avoid or delay brain fatigue
  • You learn new words
  • You improve your memory
  • By learning new words you improve your ability to think and reason
  • By improving you ability to think and reason…well, is there any downside, other than giving up the metaphorical bliss of ignorance?

I know, it sounds kind of boring.  You may never hear a nerdier statement, but dictionaries are REALLY COOL. There is a lot more in your dictionary than the definitions of words.  In a decent dictionary you also get commons uses of the word, examples of how it has been used in the past, origins of the word, et cetera.  Is your heart pounding yet?  Probably not, but don’t feel bad…you’re talking to someone who asked for a new set of dictionaries as a college graduation present.

It’s worth reading with a dictionary, even if you hate it…

Aside from the benefits already mentioned, if nothing else, the sooner you start reading with a dictionary, the sooner you can stop.  Will you ever know every word?  I hope not, because the only people who trot out words like steatopygous (google it…actually an awesome word) or Heidegerrian during casual conversations are probably just insecure and need compliments.  Don’t be one of them.  (And yes, I know these words, but I don’t use them).

The more often you turn to your dictionary, the less often you’ll have to turn to your dictionary.  It’s that simple.  However, once you start using it, I hope you’ll find that you spend more time using it than ever.  It’s fun to improve at anything, but improving your mind is a gift to yourself.  Not only is it fun, it is essential.

All joking aside, if you let your vocabulary shrink, you will lose some of your ability to think complex thoughts.  And I don’t mean complex as in “How is Lost going to end?”  I mean complex as in:

  • Who do I vote for and why?
  • Does what I read in the news make sense? Could I take apart this argument if I needed to?

By improving your vocabulary you will be better able to defend your convictions.  You do not have to believe anything just because someone says so.  That is priceless.


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  • Laura May 25, 2009, 8:16 am

    Great post. Dictionaries are not even slightly nerdy. Try pressing one unilaterally 🙂

    I tend to think words are like training modalities: the more you know, the better your chances of picking the right tool for the job. Of course some have way more of an inherent “cool” factor than others. Kettlebells, for instance, are the training equivalent of words like “steatopygous” or my personal favorite, “retromingent” (basically a more elegant way of getting across the “I’m rubber, you’re glue” concept).

    • Josh Hanagarne May 25, 2009, 8:22 am

      Thanks Laura. There’s a funny book out there called The Superior Person’s Book of Words. Very tongue in cheek, but that’s the first place I saw your beloved retromingent, if memory serves. Words are cool–that’s all there is to it.

  • David Cain May 25, 2009, 10:53 am

    When I’m sitting near my computer, I look up words I don’t know while reading. Not to be too abstruse, but I don’t come across a whole lot of words I don’t know. 😉 But I will keep a dictionary handy in case I descry a vexatious word. A good habit.

    While writing, I try to use accurate words without being too punctilious. Sometimes the right word is a big one.

    Very perspicacious post!

    • Josh Hanagarne May 25, 2009, 11:28 am

      The right word can be a big one in the right company. Knowing who you’re talking to gets more into speaking the appropriate dialect than choosing the correct words. But that’s a tale for another day. David Foster Wallace wrote an essay about grammar in which he talks about being the kid who was too smart for his own good. After striking out in a T-ball game, he shouted “How incalculably dreadful!” The results of this were predictable. Was it the right word? Definitely a precise phrase. Was it the right dialect? Ask the kids who started punching him:)

  • Ann Elise May 25, 2009, 4:33 pm


    Scratch “nerd” from your vocabulary, or at least from your list of self-referencing adjectives.

    Geek chic, because knowledge is attractive.

    ann elise (she who reads with a dictionary and has many books with definitions penciled into the margins)

    • Josh Hanagarne May 25, 2009, 4:58 pm

      I’m glad to hear that knowledge is attractive. I’m going to tell my wife how lucky she is right this very minute!

  • Paul Maurice Martin May 26, 2009, 7:33 am

    I entirely agree with you, but having worked in the public schools for 23 years, I’m afraid the culture as a whole is going in the opposite direction. And as our ability to use complex sentence structures and make fine distinctions via a decent vocabulary dwindles, so does our collective capacity for critical thought.

    • Josh Hanagarne May 26, 2009, 7:47 am

      Sad but true, but I’m not going to quit trying. At work every day I interact with hundreds of kids from generation LOL and OMG. This is the last trace of my romantic idealism: replace their iphones with giant copies of the Oxford English Dictionary.

  • Blaine Moore May 26, 2009, 7:43 am

    I’ve actually read through dictionaries cover to cover before when I was younger.

    My first attempt was a Webster’s dictionary when I was 6 or 7, and shortly before high school I read through an American Heritage dictionary.

    I’ve also read through a couple of specialized dictionaries throughout high school and college (a couple on specific categories of words such as curses and one in a foreign language.)

    It’s been a while since I’ve read a book w/a dictionary at hand. Most of what I’ve read over the past 5 years has been pretty specialized where there’s a glossary provided or the work is describing and defining terms as you go along (as they mostly deal with running/marathoning or business/marketing.)

    • Josh Hanagarne May 26, 2009, 7:48 am

      Blaine, which class were you in where you read a dictionary of curses? Sounds sinister. Must have been an elective?

  • Blaine Moore May 26, 2009, 7:51 am

    It wasn’t for a class, it was just a random book I picked up. I used to read 3 or 4 books per week minimum at that point in my life so I grabbed just about anything I could get my hands on.

  • Mina Irfan May 26, 2009, 5:25 pm

    I completely agree. My personal favorite is http://www.dictionary.com – I use it religiously!

    Thanks for a great article!


    • Josh Hanagarne May 26, 2009, 5:45 pm

      Dictionary.com is pretty good. I’m not sure why everyone fixates on Webster’s–it’s okay, but nothing special. I’m an OED devotee. Represent!

  • Tony Dazzleship May 26, 2009, 9:33 pm


    Thank you for pointing me to your site. I’ve enjoyed what I’ve read and seen so far, particularly your review of “Twilight” and your form-fitting shirt. 🙂

    I completely agree with you. My wife and I have about a dozen dictionaries in the house. We read things in a few different languages, so those dictionaries get used fairly often. I don’t know where we’d be without them!



    • Josh Hanagarne May 26, 2009, 9:48 pm

      Thanks! I just found you on myspace, Monsieur Dazzleship. I’d love to meet your wife. Bring her in sometime!

  • Oleg Mokhov October 21, 2009, 9:39 am

    Hey Josh,

    A big, diverse vocabulary helps you to express your ideas more clearly and precisely. And the best way to build your vocabulary is to read with a dictionary.

    No separate program. No dedicated time to training. Just read what you’re already reading, but take a few seconds to look up unfamiliar words. If the word is useful, other people use it, so you’ll come across it again. Look it up enough times, and the repetition will ingrain the definition in your head.

    With only a little extra effort (tied into what you’re already doing), you can effectively build your vocabulary. Plus, since you’re reading stuff of interest and related to your field, it’ll be relevant words, not SAT or scientific ones you’ll never use.

    I completely agree with your simple advice to read with a dictionary.

    Such a great vocab builder with maximum effectiveness and minimum effort,