Bryan A. Garner's Classic Word Challenge For A Larger Vocabulary

Bryan A. Garner recently posted a classic word challenge over at the ABA Journal.

So what's the big deal? Why should lawyers continue to build their vocabulary to include such words as those being tested in the challenge? According to Garner, "if [he] were to hazard a fairly educated guess, [he'd] say that American lawyers’ vocabularies range roughly from 45,000 to 135,000 words. Further, [he'd] guess that those who know 100,000 to 135,000 words have, on average, at least double the income of those who know only 45,000 to 70,000 words. [He] would also guess that there are many more lawyers at the lower end of the scale than at the higher end."

Garner goes on to further point out "E.D. Hirsch’s influential new essay, 'A Wealth of Words,' in which Hirsch makes several important arguments, including these three:

• 'Vocabulary size is a convenient proxy for a whole range of educational attainments and abilities—not just skill in reading, writing, listening and speaking but also general knowledge of science, history and the arts.'

• 'Correlations between vocabulary size and life chances are as firm as any correlations in educational research.'

• 'Between 1962 and the present, a big segment of the American population began knowing fewer words, getting less smart and becoming demonstrably less able to earn a high income.'”

This is interesting and I, personally, would like to know more about the correlation and causation of vocabulary and high income. It seems to me that, in most circumstances, income also correlates with the socioeconomic status that one is raised. If your parents are educated and make a high income, the chances are higher that you will also become educated and make a high income. It also means that your educated parents probably used a larger vocabulary that rubbed off on you. Therefore, a large vocabulary might be correlative but not causative of a high income.

But I am not one to dissuade the knowledge and use of a large vocabulary.

Here are Garner's tips for working on your vocabulary:

"If you want to work on your vocabulary, discipline yourself to note (perhaps on a slip of paper you carry in your wallet) each word you encounter but aren’t sure you understand. You’ll be looking them up later. Of course, you can also check your mobile device on the spot, but I think you’re less likely to retain the word long-term. Once you’ve collected a few words—I sometimes get up to 20 or 30 on a list—devote a little time to opening a dictionary and recording the word and its definitions, preferably in a document or notebook reserved for this purpose. You might note also the pronunciation, the etymology (the word’s origin and derivation), and the source where you encountered it. Then review your notebook periodically, trying to use the various words in sentences of your own devising."

You may want to be careful with your new found knowledge, however, because as one commenter noted, "[t]hat’s just what more lawyers need to do, come across to juries and the public as stuffy academics more concerned about looking smart and using big words rather than speaking and writing so the average person can understand the message."


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