Understanding Passive Vocabulary

passive vocabulary
Martin Manser says, "Do not be tempted to use words that you know only passively in order to spice up your writing, in case you misuse them in some way" (The Facts on File Guide to Style, 2006). Can you think of any occasions when you should ignore Manser's advice?. (aloha_17/Getty Images)

A passive vocabulary is made up of the words that an individual recognizes but rarely uses when speaking and writing. Also known as recognition vocabulary. Contrast with active vocabulary

According to John Reynolds and Patricia Acres, "Your passive vocabulary is likely to contain more words than the active one. One way to improve the range of the vocabulary in your own writing is to try to transfer words from your passive to the active vocabulary" (Cambridge Checkpoint English Revision Guide, 2013).

Examples and Observations 

  • "A passive vocabulary . . . includes the words stored in verbal memory that people partially 'understand,' but not well enough for active use. These are words that people meet less often and they may be low frequency words in the language as a whole. In other words, activating them takes longer and it demands greater stimulus than most textual contexts provide. Words stop being passive if people are regularly contracting relations that activate them, since this lowers the amount of stimulus needed to put them to use. A facility in using the words develops. Again constraints of another kind in the extralinguistic context may also restrict the active use of some words. This can happen even when words are available for active use in principle, such as cultural taboo words that most people know but rarely use outside certain settings."
    (David Corson, Using English Words. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995)
  • "Media saturation may . . . provide what Dennis Baron called a 'passive lingua franca.' We all understand what we hear on the radio or see on TV, giving us a passive vocabulary, but that doesn't mean that we use that vocabulary actively in writing or speaking."
    (Robert MacNeil et al., Do You Speak American? Random House, 2005)
  • How to Estimate the Size of Your Vocabulary
    "Take your dictionary and peruse 1 per cent of its pages, i.e. 20 pages of a 2,000-page dictionary, or every hundreth page (you need to take a range of letters of the alphabet). Note down how many words: (a) you are confident that you would regularly use; (b) you would recognize and understand if you read or heard them. Be brutally honest with yourself! Then multiply your totals by 100, to give a first approximation of your likely active and passive vocabularies."
    (Howard Jackson, Grammar and Vocabulary: A Resource Book for Students. Routledge, 2002)
  • A Passive-Active Continuum
    "[A] commonly drawn distinction is between active vocabulary, that which can be produced at will, and passive vocabulary, that which can be recognized. However, as discussed in Teichroew (1982), the picture is really more complicated. Lexical knowledge cannot be captured by means of a simple dichotomy. Teichroew proposed that vocabulary knowledge can best be represented as a continuum with the initial stage being recognition and the final being production. In her view, production should not be viewed in a monolithic fashion, for productive knowledge includes producing both a range of meanings as well as appropriate collocations (i.e., what words go together). For example, in our discussion of the word break with regard to the work of Kellerman . . ., we noted the many meanings of that word. Initially, learners may know the meaning of break as in break a leg or break a pencil, and only with time do they learn the full range of meanings and such collocations as His voice broke at age 13."
    (Susan M. Gass and Larry Selinker, Second Language Acquisition: An Introductory Course, 2nd ed. Lawrence Erlbaum, 2001)
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Your Citation
Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Passive Vocabulary." ThoughtCo, Aug. 27, 2020, thoughtco.com/passive-vocabulary-1691591. Nordquist, Richard. (2020, August 27). Understanding Passive Vocabulary. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/passive-vocabulary-1691591 Nordquist, Richard. "Understanding Passive Vocabulary." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/passive-vocabulary-1691591 (accessed February 8, 2023).