I come across words like rectitude, like laudatory, like indigent, and being an experienced reader with a strong grasp on my native language, I know what they mean. They're words that I know.

But they're not words I think of when I'm writing.

I know a thesaurus is a great friend, but honestly, I can't picture Nabokov sitting there looking up synonyms, nor do I believe that it's a habit any aspiring writer should make heavy use of. It needs to be there implicitly, in your head, ready for use.

How can I stir up the cauldron of lexical memory and bring the many sunken ingredients to the surface?


A comment below makes the argument that using uncommon words is essentially akin to bad writing; that it's unnecessary and the writer is generally better off using simpler language.

Oh. my. God. Have you ever read 1984?

Clarity is king. That is the number one rule of writing, absolutely. Writing is about communication, and communication is about clarity. Clarity is king. It is a common mistake by amateur writers to use words that inhibit clarity, to use words of great rarity with great frequency to such an extent that their sentences have more syllables than meaning.


Is looking up words a bad thing? Is expanding your range of expression an outdated notion? Should I call the sky pink instead of fuchsia for fear that my readers won't understand?

While words like tergiversate might certainly have superior substitutes, why should I stop using any word I don't hear on a daily basis?

I'll say this: I go to an engineering school, and people here do not read at all. I mean, period. They literally don't like reading books.

And when I hear a comment like the one below, I think of the moments here like when I called someone shrewd, and they asked what that meant. And it makes me so sad.

And that's the future that we encourage by being afraid to encourage the use of a dictionary.

Lastly, from the comment below:

"Aren't there enough common words to make the writing dynamic without irritating the reader?"

My intended audience never has been and never will be those who are irritated by new words.

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    What I can't understand is why is making the majority of your readers stop reading while they look up words in the dictionary considered good writing? Aren't there enough common words to make the writing dynamic without irritating the reader? – Tannalein Nov 23 '12 at 8:07
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    In principle I agree with @Tannalein. However, I also don't think using a thesaurus is bad practice; you just have to be careful about which words you choose from it. If you find yourself using the same word multiple times in short order, a thesaurus can help you find alternatives that might enhance the flow of the text (and, as a side effect, "enrich your active vocabulary"). That doesn't mean it's appropriate to use words that a majority of your audience is likely to not know the meaning of, unless you want to make a point (perhaps for example, showing an overbearing nobility character.) – user Nov 23 '12 at 9:49
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    I'll second Vocabulary.com. Although I first recommended it on another question that asked how to 'expand vocabulary' not '-active vocabulary'. But I found myself using the new words I learned there, even though they should be 7th grade-lvl in an English-speaking country. Because it shows the word in context, I get a 'feel' not a definition of it, and because it asks me to use it in an appropriate context -without my knowing that it is the needed word- means that I use it, understanding when I should use, without thinking that I should; it just fits in. – Mussri Nov 23 '12 at 11:15
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    I have such a huge problem with @Tannalein's comment that I'm going to have to expand the question to address it. I am absolutely astonished that three people are backing that comment. – temporary_user_name Nov 23 '12 at 21:30
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    "My intended audience never has been and never will be those who are irritated by new words." So what is your intended audience? What kind of writing are you focusing on? Knowing that might very well help in answering the question, and it certainly can't hurt. – user Nov 23 '12 at 23:20

10 Answers 10


One method I like to use to remember new words, or at least words I'd like to use more often, is to write them into sentences. So I'll take a word I want to dredge out from the depths of my mind (or a dictionary) and write 10 sentences that use the word in various contexts.

It's easier to recall when you use it for yourself, in contexts you've constructed as opposed to copying someone else's (such as dictionary examples).

Write it out with pen and paper, too, as studies have shown that we tend to retain information better when we write as opposed to type.

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  • Seems obvious enough. I like it. – temporary_user_name Nov 26 '12 at 3:15
  • Years of learning other languages does help you find out what works and what doesn't. ;) – Lexi Nov 26 '12 at 6:28

There's a big difference between using a fancier word when a simpler one will do (which can be unnecessarily pretentious, something that commenters have exhorted you to avoid), and using a more precise word that more accurately captures the nuances of what you are trying to say. Based on your edit and your replies, I suspect the words you wish you were using fall into that second category – not necessary rare or convoluted, but rich and exact.

The advice I would give would be to not worry about so much about finding the perfect word in your first draft (go ahead and use a good word, to keep the narrative flowing), but learn to recognize where later substitutions would be apropos (and then replace those "good" words with a more glorious word later).

If this happens more often than you'd like (which is what I suspect prompted the question), then you might try this technique: During your first draft, when you find yourself struggling to find the right word, simply use a suitable one, and then mark that with an asterisk*. That way, you can easily reidentify and locate those words when you're ready to polish your work.

Do this exercise often enough, and it wouldn't surprise me if you became more "fluent" in using those richer words in your first draft.

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  • I habitually look for the footnote when seeing the asterisk – Ooker Jul 12 '16 at 12:41

Setting aside debate over the merits of particular words (which no one should be contesting without knowing the context of your writing), making explicit word lists helps work words into my vocabulary.

By a word list I mean actually writing down or otherwise capturing the words in some way. My method is to write down the word, check out the etymology and, most of the time, jot down the context in which I read it. I do this in a paper notebook, but it doesn't really matter what technology is employed.

I'm not particularly on the hunt for synonyms or the like, just words that interest me for whatever reason. Sometimes they are esoteric. Sometimes they are not. The most recent ones that come to mind: descry, cicatrize, schizogenic and penumbra. Because I spent a little bit of effort checking into the words, they come to me significantly more readily than just listing them alone (though I often capture them on the fly and do a bit of quick Googling and OED-ing later.

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    THANK YOU for a legitimate answer that properly addresses the question. I was starting to worry that nobody understood. – temporary_user_name Nov 24 '12 at 3:38

I heartily endorse and strongly reject your key assertion.

I can't picture Nabokov sitting there looking up synonyms, nor do I believe that it's a habit any aspiring writer should make heavy use of.

My ambivalence relates to the key distinction of WHEN the thesaurus comes into play. It is not a tool to interrupt composition, but does have a central place.

When you have completed a passage of your own (or when you read a piece of Nabakov) then you can use the thesaurus to answer the question How else might I (or he) have written that? Actively seek out alternative terms and expressions, not to be used immediately but to roll around in your sub-conscious until a need arises and a word less-used does spring up, ready for use.

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I have FOUR thoughts on this:

  1. Nabokov did a lot of research, sketching etc. It wouldn't surprise me if he used a thesaurus. Writing is not effortless.

  2. A wide vocabulary is useful - so good for you. You should keep things simple and clear though.

  3. For me the ONLY way to remember things (new words included) is USE them. Either write them or speak them. Then they'll nestle more neatly in your memory.

  4. Precision is important. When describing emotions, places, everything, being precise is a skill. That's why I personally would encourage a writer to work on their vocabulary. Not to be showy, but to be precise.

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I have wrestled with this question as well, and there was a time I didn't even know how to articulate the question (which itself exhibits the problem).

The problem: You can read and hear words and understand what they mean, but when you need to formulate your own sentence, the words aren't available to you. They may be on the tip of your tongue (if you're lucky); or they may be absent.

I could read and listen and I knew the meaning of the words I perceived. I could do very well on verbal tests--especially multiple choice.

Another way to phrase this problem of active versus passive vocabulary comes from the field of memory.
The difference is between "recollection" and "recall," (I hope I'm not confusing the two terms or even misremembering one of them--that would be unhelpful).

The idea is that there is a clear difference between, say, a multiple choice quiz which provides you with a choice of 4 provided answers; and a quiz that demands you to come up with the correct answer yourself--either by writing it in the empty box or saying it.

If you intend to give a speech, then recognition will not help you. You need to recall, not recognize. Giving a speech is a very active activity, and requires you to recall; whereas listening to someone give a speech is more passive, and requires you merely to recognize (or understand the input).

I have found that I can perform well in recognition tests, but I often can barely formulate a coherent sentence when I'm anxious or I've not communicated for a day or so.

Here are specific thingamabobs which I've noticed help me:

  1. Reading any well-written passage, OUT LOUD. I've used C.S. Lewis, an English translation of Kafka, and Shakespeare. You might think that Shakespeare would not be very helpful, since his writing is filled with archaic, obscure words and may seem clunky--but reading it out loud seems to have a magical quality of dramatically improving my active vocabulary.

  2. Reading any well-written passage, out loud IN YOUR MIND. This has the same effect as #1, but you must HEAR a voice--any voice--in your mind as you read the words. To be honest, I have no idea how this works, but it does. When I used to speed-read, I read silently and fast. But I stopped speed-reading on purpose because I noticed it seemed to relieve me of my active vocabulary. Words were not easily accessible anymore. I deliberately read books out loud, or heard a voice in my mind read it. In fact, this impaired my comprehension during the reading, but it greatly improved my active vocabulary and sentence structure while talking.

  3. Reading the dictionary. Unfortunately, it is hard to find an electronic dictionary you can read cover to cover. You may need a paper one for this exercise. I still have yet to find an online or e-book version of a dictionary which you can read from A to Z. I have not even read beyond the letter B, but I have found that reading the dictionary indiscriminately always helps my active vocabulary (even beyond the letter I'm on). It sounds boring, but it is a good exercise.

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Read out loud whenever you get the chance. Hearing a word spoken adds another point of reference to the word--along with seeing it, interpreting it, and, potentially, writing it--and, like hearing a song, makes it stick more firmly in your memory.

Language learners are taught to "sing" useful expressions so that they stick in the memory. Initially, this does nothing for cognition, but when combined with research, it can help ingrain the word.

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I can't imagine myself using them in my writing either. And for the simple reason that I never saw them in day-to-day speech.

I may use them as spoken by an overly pretentious gimp in my story, one trying too hard to appear literate. But if there is a simpler synonym which conveys the same meaning without loss of nuances, avoid the obscure alternatives.

One way to enrich your vocabulary is to pick adjective-noun and verb-adverb pairs, and replace all you can with single nouns and verbs that mean just that. There's a controversy about avoiding adverbs ending with -ly. While my stance is more neutral, that's an excellent chance to enrich your vocabulary. Run a global search for "ly" in your text and every time you spot one, think if you can replace its associated verb with one that will let you remove the adverb. Run quickly - dash. Smile cynically - smirk. Try the same with epithets (noun-pronoun pairs) though the search tool won't be so helpful here. Then you may go after your phrasal verbs.

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  • I very strongly disagree with the idea of avoiding words you don't hear on a daily basis. That will inevitably lead to atavism. – temporary_user_name Nov 23 '12 at 21:47
  • Grunt! Grunt grunt grunt! – temporary_user_name Nov 23 '12 at 21:48
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    @Aerovistae: I asseverate you the assemblage apprehending your inception will undergo vehement repugnance pointing to your idiosyncrasy. ....ps.Someone talked about not alienating the reader base with incomprehensible language? – SF. Nov 23 '12 at 22:52
  • Lol-- I'm not sure if you're trying to be funny, but what you said actually, literally doesn't make any sense. To such an extent that I almost have to ask if you're ESL...? "Apprehending your inception"? – temporary_user_name Nov 23 '12 at 23:16
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    @Aerovistae: With one word somewhat off, you should not have any trouble understanding the whole sentence. Which apparently wasn't the case thanks to my choice of words. And I appear to have totally and utterly antagonized you towards my sentence in the process, which proves my point even more. – SF. Nov 23 '12 at 23:36

The only way to really expand your vocabulary is to, when you find that you need a word which does not immediately "come" to you, look for an appropriate word in reference works. Go grab a thesaurus, an encyclopedia, a dictionary, or some other reference work (or refer to ones online), and look it up. Then, get a feel for the meaning of the synonym (or antonym...) that you have found, work it into your text, and perhaps mull it over for a bit. Flag it somehow (different color, a column note, whatever) and go back to it later. Read it again. Use the word in question.

No one is born with a complete understanding of a language. I think it's safe to say that everyone uses various reference works now and then. Most people learn a language by being exposed to it. Why does it make you sad when, when you use an uncommon word, the person you used it towards asks what it means? Would it make you feel better if they assumed some, quite likely incorrect, meaning of the word in question?

Referring to a reference work while writing does not mean you cannot use words that your audience is unlikely to know by heart. If, as you say, your audience is open to putting your book aside and referring to a dictionary or thesaurus just to understand the message you are trying to convey (which, if nothing else, is going to be quite inefficient), then what problem does your doing the same to find those words pose? If you do so repeatedly, those less common words should start coming to you more readily as you are writing. But I am betting that there are ways you can work the details into your writing in a reasonably efficient manner which will not require the reader to have a reference work right next to your book in order to understand your message.

I work in the IT field, specifically programming. There is probably a million ways to write code in just about any programming language that makes it difficult for a fellow human to understand, while still being perfectly comprehensible to the computer. There are even contests for that! Programming languages and software development frameworks these days are such huge behemoths that nobody can be expected to know all of it. Lots of C-style-language (C, C++, Java, C#, ...) programmers don't understand the ternary operator (?:). I've had coworkers balk at the C# null-coalescing operator (??). It took me a while to get a good grasp of generics. Start talking about the precise difference between prefix and postfix increment/decrement inside statement execution and far too many are going to look at you like you are delusional. None of this means you shouldn't use them when appropriate; they are all extremely useful language constructs. But if you write a five-levels-deep ternary operator expression involving null coalescing, implied operator precedence, implicit conversions between types, uncommon operators and Heaven knows what else, when something simpler would do just as well, then you are going to annoy people who try to read and understand the intent of that code because they are going to have to refer to reference works all the time, or use a major portion of their mental or physical whiteboard, just to figure out how the blasted thing works. The same goes for natural language writing. Programming languages are just a very formal set of languages, with precisely defined semantics, grammar and syntax. In natural languages, ambiguity is commonplace. In a programming language, any ambiguity tends to be either a compiler/interpreter (lexer, mostly) bug, or specification oversight.

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On the general point of widening your active vocabulary, I'm entirely with you Aerovistae. A rich vocabulary is one of the foundations of good writing. J.R. describes it well with:

There's a big difference between using a fancier word when a simpler one will do (which can be unnecessarily pretentious, something that commenters have exhorted you to avoid), and using a more precise word that more accurately captures the nuances of what you are trying to say.

I'd actually go even further. I think what nuance describes in this case is the complex interplay between denotation and connotation. It might be that a simpler word denotes the same meaning to your reader, but to think of language in this way is to entirely undermine the associative power of words. In short, no synonym is exactly alike.

Unfamiliar words can also be a powerful way to engage readers. A quick example: I read Les Miserables around 10 years ago and can barely remember the basic plot outline. I can however remember a particular metaphor in which a daydreaming man is imagined as a caryatid on holiday. I had no idea what a caryatid was, which is exactly why it had such potency - it stuck out. Once I looked the word up it was firmly in my mind, which primed me ingeniously for the surprising number of times Hugo uses that word, and had me pondering its significance more deeply. Simple words can't do that.

Anyway, on the practical side of improving your active vocabulary. I use spaced repetition software (Anki in my case) to memorise the definitions of words, but with a twist. Instead of just reciting the definition, I write out a sentence using the word whenever it appears on a flashcard. The software is helpful because it shows the words you're struggling with more often. It also allows you to study hundreds of words without losing track of where you are.

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