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Are there 20,000 English words in the average adult's vocabulary?

English is not my native language, but I use it on a daily basis. I started reading English literature about two years ago. Mostly I read science fiction and fantasy, but also read other books. Once in a while (several times per chapter) I come across words I need to check in a dictionary. That's all good, I keep learning more. But what I'm concerned with is that I bought a dictionary of 55000 English words, and by my experience I encounter words about once per chapter that are not in this dictionary. And that doesn't count slang or words with mixed endings. Just the words in their basic forms as nouns or adjectives or verbs and so forth.

What I want to know is whether native English speakers have vocabularies of more than 55000 words or do they struggle as I do? I don't think they have such problems, because when I read books written in my native language, I don't.

marked as duplicate by RegDwigнt Feb 20 '12 at 11:18

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Oftentimes, readers will stumble across a word they've never seen before, but be able to deduce its meaning from the passage itself - or, at least, enough about its meaning that they need not consult a dictionary.

For example:

Vladimir Brusiloff had permitted his face to become almost entirely concealed behind a dense zareba of hair, but his eyes were visible through the undergrowth.

The reader may be unfamiliar with the term zareba, but, given the context, it's not too difficult to imagine that it means something like densely overgrown.

That said, consulting a dictionary is a good way to get the precise meaning of words, and to expand your vocabulary. You may want to get a blank journal, and simply write down the words as you come across them. That way, you can look them up later - and create a more permanent record that can be reviewed from time to time.

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    NOTE: a zareba is an improvised stockade, esp. one constructed of thorny bushes. The example sentence was quoted from a work by P.G. Wodehouse. – J.R. Feb 20 '12 at 9:21

A fact you may want to consider is that the average reader does not really look-up a dictionary every time a new word comes up. (Don't be surprised, please read on.)

  1. Looking up the meaning of a word is disruptive.
  2. Words have multiple meanings, multiple part-of-speech usage, and more.
  3. Words could be used literally or metaphorically.
  4. More...

Occasionally you can take a break, look up a dictionary and also read some example sentences of usage, before resuming the reading.

Up to one or two new words in a page can mean that you need to keep moving on and expect to 'get it' by context, at least a vague concept.

More than that would mean it is possibly above your reading level and therefore, you should wait until a little later to revisit afresh.


It's not that bad - 6000 words covers about 90% of usage

There are a lot of idioms are phrases used in literature and novels, but you can understand the story (if not the subtle poetry) without these.


I think it ordinary and reasonable to encounter several unfamiliar words per book, and have read some books where there were several per chapter. For example napoo, quietism, uncials, quilpish, woad, scurfy, meriodional, agrégé, cycerlermums in one book, honyockers and ait in another, cardoons, palanquins, enchephalitic, voile, quadriga, minaudière, phatic, focaccia, etagere, enceinte in various others. A few of these, like woad and voile, are "words everyone knows" (or more likely think they know), and often context or word form make meanings clear enough, or I will vaguely recall a meaning (like uncials having something to do with old letters). Each of these and many others was an occasion to look up a new, unfamiliar, or sometimes misremembered or variantly-spelled word.

If you are reading at a level that will stretch your mind, it's perfectly reasonable to encounter a few new words per book, whatever the vocabulary size of the average person or the average book.


In addition to what mgb said, most native speakers have a vocabulary of 26,000 words or less.

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