What is Vocabulary in Grammar?

If you know the meaning of a word, it's in your vocabulary

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Vocabulary (from the Latin for "name," also called wordstock, lexicon, and lexis) refers to all the words in a language that are understood by a particular person or group of people. There are two main types of vocabulary: active and passive. An active vocabulary consists of the words we understand and use in everyday speaking and writing. Passive vocabulary is made up of words that we may recognize but don't generally use in the course of normal communication.

Vocabulary Acquisition

"By age 2, spoken vocabulary usually exceeds 200 words. Three-year-olds have an active vocabulary of at least 2,000 words, and some have far more. By 5, the figure is well over 4,000. The suggestion is that they are learning, on average, three or four new words a day."—From "How Language Works" by David Crystal

Measuring Vocabulary

Exactly how many words are there in the English language? There's no real answer to that question. In order to reach a plausible total, there must be a consensus as to what constitutes actual vocabulary.

Editors of the 1989 edition of the Oxford English Dictionary reported that the reference work contained upwards of 500,000 definitions. The average dictionary clocks it at about 100,000 entries. When you add it all up along with lists of geographical, zoological, botanical, and other specialized jargon, an imperfect but credible total for the number of words and word-like forms in present-day English is in excess of a billion words.

Likewise, the sum of a person's vocabulary is more than just the total number of words he or she knows. It also takes into account what people have experienced, reflected on, and either incorporated or rejected. As a result, the measure of vocabulary is fluid rather than fixed.

The English Language's Appropriated Vocabulary

"English, probably more so than any language on earth, has a stunningly bastard vocabulary," notes David Wolman, a frequent writer on language, Contributing editor at Outside, and longtime contributor at Wired. He estimates that between 80 and 90% of all the words in the Oxford English Dictionary are derived from other languages. "Old English, lest we forget," he points out, "was already an amalgam of Germanic tongues, Celtic, and Latin, with pinches of Scandinavian and Old French influence as well."

According to Ammon Shea, the author of several books on obscure words, "the vocabulary of English is currently 70 to 80% composed of words of Greek and Latin origin, but it is certainly not a Romance language, it is a Germanic one." Proof for this, he explains can be found in the fact that while it's relatively simple to construct a sentence without using words of Latin origin, "it's pretty much impossible to make one that has no words from Old English."

English Vocabulary by Region

  • Canadian English Vocabulary: Canadian English vocabulary tends to be closer to American English than British. The languages of both American and British settlers remained intact for the most part when settlers came to Canada. Some language variations have resulted from contact with Canada's Aboriginal languages and with French settlers. While there are relatively few Canadian words for things that have other names in other dialects, there is enough differentiation to qualify Canadian English as a unique, identifiable dialect of North American English at the lexical level.
  • British English and American English: These days, there are many more American words and expressions in British English than ever before. Although there is a two-way exchange, the directional flow of borrowing favors the route from American to Britain. As a result, speakers of British English generally tend to be familiar with more Americanisms than speakers of American English are of Britishisms.
  • Australian English: "Australian English is set apart from other dialects thanks to its abundance of highly colloquial words and expressions. Regional colloquialisms in Australia often take the form of shortening a word, and then adding a suffix such as -ie or -o. For example, a "truckie" is a truck driver; a "milko" is a milkman; "Oz" is short for Australia, and an "Aussie" is an Australian.

The Lighter Side of Vocabulary

"I was with a girl once. Wasn't a squaw, but she was purty. She had yellow hair, like, uh... oh, like something."
"Like hair bobbed from a ray of sunlight?"
"Yeah, yeah. Like that. Boy, you talk good."
"You can hide things in vocabulary."

—Garret Dillahunt as Ed Miller and Paul Schneider as Dick Liddil in "The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford"

Related Resources

Vocabulary-Building Exercises and Quizzes

Sources

  • Crystal, David. "How Language Works: How Babies Babble, Words Change Meaning, and Languages Live or Die." Harry N. Abrams, 2006
  • Wolman, David. "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling," Smithsonian. October 7, 2008
  • McWhorter, John. "The Power of Babel: A Natural History of Language." Harper Perennial, 2001
  • Samuels, S. Jay. "What Research Has to Say About Vocabulary Instruction." International Reading Association, 2008
  • McArthur, Tom. "The Oxford Companion to the English Language." Oxford University Press, 1992
  • Wolman, David. "Righting the Mother Tongue: From Olde English to Email, the Tangled Story of English Spelling." Harper, 2010
  • Shea, Ammon. "Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation." TarcherPerigee, 2014
  • Boberg, Charles. "The English Language in Canada: Status, History and Comparative Analysis." Cambridge University Press, 2010
  • Kövecses, Zoltán. "American English: An Introduction." Broadview Press, 2000
  • Wells, John Christopher. "Accents of English: The British Isles." Cambridge University Press, 1986
  • McCarthy, Michel; O'Dell, Felicity. "English Vocabulary in Use: Upper-Intermediate," Second Edition. Cambridge University Press, 2001