Keeping a Vocabulary

The stunning technology all around (and sometimes even inside) us has brought with it the suggestion that speed and ease are always better, that getting where we want to go with as few impediments as possible is the standard of work and living we should aspire to achieve, always. To argue the opposite—let’s try to live in deep and plodding frustration with few hopes and infinite obstacles—would be absurd, of course, but what about an argument for slowing down a bit, for taking a longer (not the longest) way home sometimes?

There is no writing without a dictionary and usage manual at your side, particularly in writing a language like English whose vocabulary is enormous. Most of us will rightly turn to an online format ( and are the standard); so much information is so easily at hand for us to work quickly that we can often fulfill the mandate of technology with but ease and a smile. What we too often forget, however, is that working intelligently like this—particularly in gathering a vocabulary—requires a complementary skill, the ability to ruminate, to go over something slowly, again and again, as if to find just the right place for it in one’s mind and then set it down there to remember where we put it. There is no such thing as ruminating quickly, just as there is no swiftly gardening or golfing. An appropriate pace exists for an activity, and writing thoughtfully about something requires we slow, slow down.

To help develop this slow and slowing skill of rumination, we can learn to mull over and muse upon the words we look up quickly online by keeping a vocabulary of our own. A vocabulary is not just a list of words we’ve looked up, but our collection of the words and phrases we’ve come upon in our own reading and writing, together with their derivation and definitions. A basic entry in our vocabulary, for example, might look like this: ruminate (< to chew the cud), to go over slowly and repeatedly in the mind. All of this information is straight from Merriam-Webster. The sign < in language study means derived from, and what follows it within the parentheses indicates the meaning of the word in its original language. It’s all short and sweet and slow going, which are just the complementary qualities we are trying now and then to consciously develop.

A vocabulary need be nothing fancier than a separate file or notebook to which we add items from time to time that are either entirely new to us, or which we could not easily define on the spot for someone else. It is important to emphasize here that it is something we do from time to time, so that keeping a vocabulary is not a chore, but instead a not entirely unpleasant exercise that will sharpen our choice of words and help us write with vigor and force. Vigor and force and command, for our mind has to have a stock of words it is well acquainted with in order to reach to the right word without thinking, as if with its eyes closed.

And in addition to words and their definitions, an especially important vocabulary entry is one that distinguishes between two words that are often confused. So an entry in your vocabulary might look like this: continuous/continual: uninterrupted/intermittent, and this would be a quick reminder to guard against muddying the fine difference between the two meanings: if the furnace runs continuously, not continually, it’s time to call the repairman. Writing and thinking are inseparable, and our intelligence and acumen gather force by concentration and accuracy. A fine vocabulary guards against generalities, the menace of clear thinking and robust writing.


A reminder that the third Writing Smartly seminar, Nouns and Adjectives, will be held tonight, October 20, from 7:00 to 8:00 p.m. The seminar will clarify the difference between count and collective nouns, and explain how that knowledge can keep your ideas exact and clear. Adjectives make nouns more specific, and using them skillfully depends on where they are placed and how they are punctuated. We will also discuss how best to use a comma in listing a series of nouns and adjectives, and highlight the misunderstanding that can result in not punctuating accurately. Participants will receive a handout that summarizes the presentation, including exercises and answers for private study. You may now enroll directly through this registration link. Tuition is $25.


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