When we talk about developing a strong vocabulary, do we mean the use of big words, words that other people will need to look up in the dictionary in order to understand us? Of course we do not. We should consider, though, the experiences of our readers. Imagine the plight of the reader condemned to trudge through the wasteland of a dry, desert wordscape such as this one:
There was a cool breeze that moved the branches, light shown on the rocks, and the sun began to warm things up.
Now compare that description with this one, written by Flann O’Brien:
“The air was keen, clear, abundant and intoxicating. Its powerful presence could be discerned everywhere, shaking up the green things jauntily, conferring greater dignity and definition on the stones and boulders, forever arranging and re-arranging the clouds and breathing life into the world. The sun had climbed steeply out of his hiding and was now standing benignly in the lower sky pouring down floods of enchanting light and preliminary tingling of heat.”
At the same time, we do need to be certain of the meanings of the words we use, and to understand the correct definitions of the ones we read. Some of my students remember one of my favorite examples: “contentious.” One might believe that this word contains “content” so it must mean that a person is satisfied with things the way they are. However, this adjective is actually a form of the verb “contend,” which means to argue, oppose or struggle. In order to add the adjectival ending “ious,” we substitute a “t” for the “d” at the end of the word. The misuse of such a word might result in a comical reaction at best. Therefore, I suggest learning all the forms of the words we encounter.
We cannot expect to develop a vibrant, dynamic vocabulary overnight, or even in a few weeks or months. The development takes place over the years, and, ultimately, a lifetime of practice.