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Spelling and vocabulary

Learn about how to improve spelling and vocabulary in your writing.

Which words should you use?

By some estimates, the English language includes over 470,000 words (Merriam-Webster, n.d.)! However, don't despair--some studies estimate that only a fraction of these words (up to 9,000) are necessary for communicating in and understanding standard written English (Sagar-Fenton & McNeil, 2018).

Still, this seems like quite a lot, doesn't it? Fortunately, you won't really need all 9,000 of these different words to write a paper. In fact, since your papers will often have far fewer than 9,000 words, you shouldn't use more words or more unfamiliar words than necessary. Often, finding the right words will mean using words that are more familiar and accessible to you and your audience instead of words that very few people will understand.

To start with, this list of the 3000 most common words in the English language includes many, if not most of the words you will need in most papers. Some online dictionaries also include information about the frequency of specific words in the English language.

For example, the Collins Dictionary (n.d.) entry for the word "compendious" shows that the word is uncommon in the English language; in fact, its use declined significantly over the last century. The entry identifies "concise" as a synonym, and since "concise" is a common word in modern English, it would be a better choice to increase the clarity of your writing.


Compendious. (n.d.). In Collins Dictionary. Retrieved July 6, 2021, from

Merriam-Webster. (n.d.). How many words are there in English?

Sagar-Fenton, B. & McNeil, L. (2018, June 24). How many words you you need to speak a language? BBC News.

Learn new vocabulary

A. Read lots of different types of materials

Reading is a great way to learn new words because you’ll be exposed to them in context, which will help you to remember them. It’s more challenging to learn a list of words without having the additional information of how they’re used in sentences. Try reading different types of materials that are intended for different audiences (e.g., scholarly journal article, book, newspaper, blog) to experience a wide range of vocabulary on a variety of topics. An added bonus to this approach is that your general knowledge will also increase.

If you're finding it challenging to read materials on unfamiliar topics, read for fun! Try reading materials that appeal to you because of a personal interest or because they're enjoyable to read, such as a novel, website, or graphic novel. The more you're enjoying your reading experience, the more likely you are to keep reading.

B. Keep a list of new words

When you experience a word that is unfamiliar to you, make a note of the word in a vocabulary list. If you’re in conversation with someone, consider asking them what the word means. If you’re reading, refer to a dictionary for a definition of the word, and you may find it helpful to add the definition to your word in the vocabulary list. If you don’t have the time or opportunity to look up the word at that moment, complete the task when you have more time. You may also find it helpful to consult a thesaurus to see what other words share the meaning of the new word.

C. Practice using your new words

Set yourself a daily goal to use your new vocabulary words (e.g., three words a day, either in speech or writing). Using the words will give you a personal association with the vocabulary, which will help you to remember what they mean and feel more comfortable using them.

D. Use online resources, including games and apps, to help you learn new words

Here are just a few options:

If you are looking for further tips on using dictionaries and expanding your vocabulary, including lists of words by topics, please see the following websites as well:

An English language corpus, which is a database of words from published texts, is also an excellent way to confirm how common a word is in written English, such as academic texts. Some examples of these tools are the Brown Corpus of Contemporary Standard English and the Corpus of Contemporary American English, which is accompanied by a guide that introduces the main functions within the database.

Remember new vocabulary

When you notice new words for the first time or catch yourself misspelling a word, write it down as a note to yourself to look up the word and practice using it. Creating a personalized list of new or unfamiliar words can help remind you to look out for them in your writing as well. Below are some tools that can help you record and practice these new or unfamiliar words: 

The more you read and write these words, the better you will become at mastering their use and checking your own writing for spelling errors. Be patient with yourself as you learn these new words.