Under the Hood

The science of vocabulary building

Finding the Right Words to Learn

As you speed through the Challenge, watching the words you’ve learned accumulate like so many dollars in the savings account of life, do you ever stop and wonder how many words are out there?

You might have an easier time counting the stars in the heavens. Even linguists and lexicographers can't agree on a number. (And many believe the search for one is a bit silly.) 

"It's really an unanswerable question," says Vocabulary.com lexicographer Ben Zimmer, who contemplated this issue in his Word Routes column Powers of Ten. The 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary, for instance, includes entries for about 250,000 words, though its editors by no means suggest that this number represents the English lexicon. "You can expand the number in any direction you like," Zimmer explains. "There's technical words, foreign words, or slang, to name a few."

Fortunately, as vocabulary learners, we don't need to be as concerned with the question of how big the lexicon is as we do with the question, "When you set out to learn words, where do you begin?"

At Vocabulary.com, of course! Here, we take our cue from vocabulary education experts, good teachers who know how to introduce their students to words that are not only interesting and challenging, but that are also likely to appear in texts students read as they proceed through school. Teachers chose these words to give students the most bang for their buck. 

At Vocabulary.com, we seek out these bang-giving words as well. We trawl newspapers, the Internet, and contemporary and classic literature looking not just for which words appear, but for how often. From these words, we create a pool to teach on the site. Then, as you play the Challenge, we use the technology behind it to create a customized subset of that pool just for you. These are words that you don't know, but are likely to see again and again out in the world.

So next time you look at the list of words you're learning, don't compare it to the unknowably large English lexicon. Think of it rather as a map, the words points in the constellations that give shape to an unknowably-large number of stars.


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Comments from our users:

Monday March 5th 2012, 2:48 AM
Comment by: Yash D.
I have recently encountered with this site and beleive me I have never seen anything like this before. I appreciate your sincere efforts and I am giving my very best to learn the words.

Thanks,
Yash
Tuesday March 6th 2012, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Claudia G.
I really enjoy challenging myself with Vocabulary.com and am glad to learn that there is no end to the source of this pleasure.
Tuesday March 6th 2012, 12:54 PM
Comment by: Stuart the Maniac
It seems like a lot of the words on this site are not yet "quizzable". This site seems to start you with really hard words and then back off a little...granted, there are some toughies as time goes on, but it seems like most of the bang comes at the beginning. Maybe you should engage the community in assisting to make the words ready for the challenge section.
Wednesday March 7th 2012, 2:39 AM
Comment by: Dhiraj K.
This site is so cool that, ironically i don't have words to define it.
Wednesday March 7th 2012, 10:42 AM
Comment by: Pushpendra G. (India)
Its one of the best site that I have seen to enhance the power of learning new word every day.
Monday March 12th 2012, 9:28 AM
Comment by: Vocabulary.com (NY)Visual Thesaurus Moderator
Stuart: Thanks for your comment. We're always adding new words.
Monday March 26th 2012, 5:07 PM
Comment by: Bokshil Y.
This site has helped me improve dramatically in my vocabulary dictionary. I've never seen such a great interactive like this one.
Monday April 9th 2012, 6:18 AM
Comment by: Basant Arya (India)
when i was a college student and was learning english i used to collet new unknown word and thier meaning. i wish i had come across this site earlier. now i have decided to visit regulary this site.
Monday April 23rd 2012, 5:51 PM
Comment by: Radko C. (NJ)
Don't understand why, upon reaching 15MM point level, all I see is
repeating "brush up" words. That teaches me nothing. The only way, and
very unproductive at that, to find some new and different words is
scrounging around the proffered Word Lists. Vocabulary.com is no longer
enriching my vocabulary despite the rhetoric about near inexhaustible
supply of words. Are you repressing the accumulation of points?
Radko Chudacek
Friday May 4th 2012, 4:18 AM
Comment by: Aleksey G. (Russian Federation)
I have been here for several months already and moving to 3,000,000 points level.

I can assure everyone who can be sceptical about the efficiency of the method of vocabulary.com - it works well for me. My vocabulary is very much enriched, being a non-native speaker of English.

Will keep on using it !
Friday June 15th 2012, 9:29 AM
Comment by: Parth S. (India)
This is the 'Word Power Made Easy' of the internet. Love the interface, the no nonsense simplicity.
Monday June 18th 2012, 10:02 PM
Comment by: The Cow (Feni South Africa)
Best site i have ever seen.
Friday August 17th 2012, 1:38 PM
Comment by: abdi U.
It is really challenge and I like it becouse I want to improve my language
Tuesday August 21st 2012, 4:34 PM
Comment by: Abdirahman A.
It seems like a lot of the words on this site are not yet "quizzable". This site seems to start you with really hard words and then back off a little...granted, there are some toughies as time goes on, but it seems like most of the bang comes at the beginning. Maybe you should engage the community in assisting to make the words ready for the challenge section.
Friday November 30th 2012, 3:36 AM
Comment by: Nks S.
I think simpler example sentences ought to be added.
I mean some sentences given as examples include superfluous details and tough grammar so the learner is apt to get confused.
Monday March 25th 2013, 2:25 AM
Comment by: kevin G. (kottayam India)
thank you!!! ....whoever came up with the idea of creating this site....Kevin George(Kerala, India)
Tuesday June 11th 2013, 3:11 PM
Comment by: Seal Lover
I think many words are not being able to be searched up so if u could do something that'd be great

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Studies show that knowing words predicts success at learning words from context.
This excerpt from Bringing Words to Life: Robust Vocabulary Instruction, by Isabel L. Beck, Margaret G. McKeown, and Linda Kucan, can help teachers decide which "Tier Two" words to prioritize.
Powers of Ten
- 8 Comments
Ben Zimmer contemplates the unknowably-large English lexicon.