How many words are there in the English language? According to the Global Language Monitor’s estimate on January 1, 2014, there were 1,025,109. That’s a big number, but we don’t use nearly that many. A study by The Guardian newspaper claimed most native-born English speakers learn only 12,000 words by age 12, and get by with those 12,000 for the rest of their lives.
How do we square this finding with the long-held value we place on a big vocabulary? Our education system teaches us to learn more words, and the usual wisdom we get at work sounds something like this:
“When writing to an executive, use bigger words to sound more impressive.”
If you still follow this advice, you’re wasting a lot of time writing corporate gibberish that nobody wants to read. I’ve interviewed hundreds of senior level managers over the past ten years, and I haven’t found even one who’s impressed by big words.
The disconnect may come in part from books like the 1971 bestselling 30 Days to a More Powerful Vocabulary by Norman Lewis, a leading authority on English-language skills. The book promised professional success to anyone who spent just 15 minutes a day building up his or her stock of big words.
Lewis’s concept made sense at the time, but it’s seriously out-of-date for today’s diverse population and digital landscape. People now are busier and more distracted than ever. Most of us don’t want to think or read more than we have to, and we certainly don’t want to get bogged down by people trying to prove how smart they are.
If you want to impress your boss, be clear and concise. Use plain, conversational language that expresses your ideas, and stop showing off.
This is good news for busy people, but also for anyone learning English. All you have to do is put down the thesaurus and read the daily newspaper. The Guardian writer estimated that most popular papers use about 12,000 words – just enough for you to show your boss that you know your stuff.