Does the Size of a Writer’s Vocabulary Matter?

by Sierra Ret, jaBlog! Blogger


“The vocabularies of the majority of high-school pupils are amazingly small. I always try to use simple English, and yet I have talked to classes when quite a minority of the pupils did not comprehend more than half of what I said.” ―M.W. Smith, 1889

Size Writers Vocabulary Matter jaBlog!Here we have another voicing of the all-too-common cry made by parents and academics alike. “Our language is falling into ruins,” they say. And you can be almost certain that in the next breath they’ll be adding, “It’s all the Internet’s fault”.

While it is true that excessive use of technology may be stunting children’s vocabularies (read more about the iPad generation and their language skills here), the belief that our language is getting increasingly worse is far from new. In fact, the above quote by M.W. Smith was first published in 1889.

The Debate

The endless argument over the size of our vocabularies and whether evolving language is a positive or negative phenomena has been going on for millennia. One of my favourite quotes that I came across while researching this topic was written by a poor fellow who didn’t like the casual way people were speaking Latin, when really the language he was complaining about had become French.

Evolving language is inevitable. You only have to glance at a page of Shakespeare to see it. The question facing us now is technology. How is it impacting our language? And should we be concerned?

For many, the answer is no. John McWhorter, who recently gave a thought provoking TED Talk titled “Txtng is killing language. JK!!!” argued that texting isn’t so much a new language, but a form of fingered speech. Youth who are fluent in both texting and traditional writing are in a sense bilingual, which has been shown to be cognitively beneficial. That sounds like a lovely piece of progressive thinking, and it certainly seems easier to embrace the younger generation’s love of acronyms and slang than attempting to halt it, but that doesn’t mean we should just throw up the white flag and declare war on proper English lost.

Treasuring Our Words

As writers, it should seem obvious how important this debate is. Not only do we use language and speech to communicate on a daily basis, words make up the very essence of our passion and profession.

For example, compare three quotes commenting on the subject of music.

“If one should desire to know whether a kingdom is well governed, if its morals are good or bad, the quality of its music will furnish the answer.” ―Confucius, 200 BC


“I would say that music is the easiest means in which to express, but since words are my talent, I must try to express clumsily in words what the pure music would have done better.” ―William Faulkner, 1956


“People haven’t always been there for me but music always has.” ―Taylor Swift

Now it may just be my own humble opinion, but I know which writing styles I would rather imitate.

As writers we must ask ourselves: would we rather be eloquent or concise? Simplistic or memorable? While it is true that we can communicate anything with a vocabulary of a mere 850 words, as proven by the inventors of BE (Basic English), can you imagine how dull prose would be, never mind poetry?

Grow Your Word-hoard

I’m not going to get into the monolithic debate over just how many words Shakespeare had in his vocabulary and how many we’ve lost and invented since then. Such estimates differ widely and are extremely difficult to standardize. The few online tests I took this week while writing this article varied all the way from 12,000 to 25,000 root words in my vocabulary.

While it’s true that acronyms and incomplete sentences can save time when sending short instant messages, using texting expressions frequently is not going to help you become a better writer.

Sheri Tepper summed this up wonderfully, “As vocabulary is reduced, so are the number of feelings you can express, the number of events you can describe, the number of the things you can identify! Not only understanding is limited, but also experience. Man grows by language.”

The evolution of language may be inevitable, but that doesn’t mean we should settle for less in our writing.

What do you think? Are texting abbreviations the future of English or language’s greatest scourge? Have you ever wondered how many words are in your vocabulary? Click here to test your vocab and share your results in the comments!


Sierra Ret

About Sierra Ret

Sierra Ret is an enthusiastic homeschool student with an insatiable love for reading and story telling. She divides her time between writing stories for competitions and producing nonfiction for jaBlog! and other freelance assignments. Sierra is the winner of the 2015 Polly Prize for Creative Writing.

2 comments on “Does the Size of a Writer’s Vocabulary Matter?

  1. Sierra Ret

    Thanks, Meghna! Glad you enjoyed it.

  2. Meghna

    What an interesting article. I loved it!

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