What Is a Person's Active Vocabulary?

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An active vocabulary is made up of the words readily used and clearly understood by an individual when speaking and writing. Contrast with passive vocabulary.

Martin Manser notes that an active vocabulary "consists of the words that [people] use frequently and confidently. If someone asks them to make up a sentence containing such and such a word—and they can do it—then that word is part of their active vocabulary."

In contrast, Manser says, "a person's passive vocabulary consists of the words whose meanings they know—so that they do not have to look the words up in a dictionary—but which they would not necessarily use in ordinary conversation or writing" (The Penguin Writer's Manual, 2004).

Examples and Observations

  • "An active vocabulary covers all those words people need to use and have no reservations about using to communicate with others on an everyday basis. The range of people's active vocabulary is a unique reflection of their sociocultural position and the range of discursive practices engaged in. In other words, it depends on the range of relations people contract as a part of everyday existence, over a lifetime. Except for people who frequently make contact with the specialist meaning systems of professions or of other special knowledge categories, most people's active words are high frequency words in the language and need little stimulus to activate them in the mental lexicon. They are ready for use in incoming and outgoing messages, with no noticeable effort."
    (David Corson, Using English Words. Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1995)

Developing an Active Vocabulary

  • "When teachers tell you not to use the word get or to find a better adjective to replace nice, they are trying to encourage you to transfer words from your passive vocabulary into your active vocabulary." (Laurie Bauer, Vocabulary. Routledge, 1998)
  • "As a writer, try to turn much of your recognition vocabulary into active vocabulary. In order to make the switch, you must be certain to observe the context, connotation, and denotation of every word you intend to transfer." (Adrienne Robins, The Analytical Writer: A College Rhetoric. Collegiate Press, 1996)
  • "Educationists believe that using vocabulary in communicative tasks is more beneficial to developing active vocabulary than requiring learners to memorize isolated words, or leaving them to their own devices." (Batia Laufer, "Quantitative Evaluation of Vocabulary." Experimenting with Uncertainty: Essays in Honour of Alan Davies, ed. by C. Elder et al. Cambridge University Press, 2001)
  • "While studies agree that knowledge of vocabulary is important for developing reading skills, they also show it is normally extensive reading that helps develop a wide vocabulary." (Irene Schwab and Nora Hughes, "Language Variety." Teaching Adult Literacy: Principles and Practice, ed. by Nora Hughes and Irene Schwab. Open University Press, 2010)

Graded Knowledge of Words

  • "The active vocabulary obviously consists of words that we know 'better' than those that constitute our passive vocabulary. The same distinction holds for native speakers, who also actively use only a subset of the words they are familiar with. Another instance of graded knowledge of words is the fact that, even as native speakers, we often only know that we have heard or read a certain word before, but do not know what it means." (Ingo Plag, Word-Formation in English. Cambridge University. Press, 2003)
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Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Person's Active Vocabulary?" ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, thoughtco.com/what-is-active-vocabulary-1689060. Nordquist, Richard. (2023, April 5). What Is a Person's Active Vocabulary? Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-active-vocabulary-1689060 Nordquist, Richard. "What Is a Person's Active Vocabulary?" ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/what-is-active-vocabulary-1689060 (accessed June 10, 2023).