The true size of the English language is often debated and probably impossible to determine. Those who do try to quote the count tend to agree that English includes about 250,000 to 300,000 distinctly usable words.
The second edition of the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary (2009) comprises 171,476 words in current use; 47,156 obsolete words; and another 9,500 derivative words as subentries (a total of 228,132).
The estimate of an English speaker’s vocabulary varies more widely. Some say the average person has 5,000 to 6,000 words for retrieval. Others say 10,000 to 20,000. In a May 2013 web article, The Economist used its own test results to measure that an adult native’s vocabulary ranged from 20,000 to 35,000 words. William Shakespeare was said to have had a word bank that soared as high as 60,000.
Of perhaps even greater note, whatever the size of your vocabulary, many agree that most of us draw from a main base of up to 1,000 words to express ourselves—which leads to why we’re discussing big versus small.
Words’ primary function is to convey our thoughts, ideas, wishes, and opinions. If people have a vocabulary of 5,000 words on the low end and 35,000 on the high (we won’t include Shakespeare), but they often rely on a core 1,000, we can deduce that a part of our language will be understood by all.
A look at just one list of the 1,000 most common words shows almost all have three or fewer syllables. We use a smaller, simpler index because it ensures greater clarity and easier processing, which leads to greater trust, which leads to greater credibility.
A Princeton University study determined that using big words can even make people look, well, not so smart. When it comes to words, small beats big, and clear outfoxes complex.
The (superb) website GrammarBook.com has touched on this in Resolutions for Word Nerds (see #4). It has also cited where a four- or five-star word can be acceptable and even desirable (Big Words We Can Use).
Overall, expressive and persuasive writing blends the diverse, pointed, and evocative words available to us. Some will be big, and some will be small. In everyday communication, however, less is more in making sure we’re quickly understood, especially in an age of content overload.
Here’s but a start on keeping your writing ready to convert from big to small:
Instead of / Use
abstemious / restrained or moderate
anachronistic / out of date
audacious / bold
auspicious / promising
circuitous / indirect
circumlocution / wordiness
conviviality / cheer
enervating / tiring
hypothesis / theory
jubilation / joy
magnanimous / selfless
ostentatious / flashy or showy
parsimonious / frugal
perfidious / shady or corrupt
perspicacious / alert or aware