How Many Words Does The Average Person Know?

There is a common notion that the average English-speaking adult knows between 20,000 and 30,000 words. Recently, a research was published about an analysis of 10 years worth of Wall Street Journal newspapers. It reported that after removing duplicates and names, less than 20,000 unique words were used.

I have a huge interest in linguistics, so naturally this intrigued me.


Who has the biggest vocabulary?

I don’t know about the biggest, but interestingly, the playwright William Shakespeare had an incredible command of words. His masterpieces combined used over 25,000 unique words. It’s possible that the number of words he knew was much more than that. It’s surprising that he alone used more words than the Wall Street Journal compiled in 10 years.

Image of Scrabble board game.

Still, even with our limited vocabulary, new words are created everyday. For example, when new products are created, there is often a need to create new words. In fact, did you know that there is a new word born every 98 minutes? Depending on your criteria of what a word is, that number could be more than a million. Luckily no one person needs to memorize all of that!


Kids vs. Adults

There are known differences between the vocabulary level of a child and an adult. An average child knows approximately 3,000 words. However, when we look deeper into the gap between the 3,000 that children know and the 30,000 that adults know, we find that we English speakers don’t really learn much as we grow into adults.

When researchers classified the words children and adults understand, they found that most of the additional words missing from the vocabulary of children are simply modified versions of the same words that children know. For example, the children know the word “scissors” whereas the adult knows the different types of scissors like “kitchen scissors”, “surgical scissors”, and scissors used to trim nose hairs. Another example is that the children knows the word “dog” and a few types of them, but the adult knows the names of many more different types of dogs.

Based on these findings, we can be tempted to say that we learn the majority of our words in middle school.

This process of taking simple concepts and expanding them into complex concepts is similar to the way the cells in our bodies multiply. Furthermore, it can be compared to how our cultures grow and expand. Alike how human civilizations constantly evolve and advance while certain older civilizations and traditions disappear, many words have a similar fate.

In many human languages, we can find archaic words that have been fossilized in books and other words that are endangered and facing extinction.


Want to increase your vocabulary?

If you feel you know less than 30,000 or less than 20,000 words and would like to catch up, try learning new words through familiar associations and contexts. It has been proven that when you connect a new word to a word or group of words you are already familiar with, you can retain the new word longer.

Twinword Exam does just that. Start a level test today to see where you are. You can choose vocabulary words that have been used on the GRE, GMAT, SAT, TOEFL, or any other number of tests. After finding your level, you can select to receive daily emails to help you increase your vocabulary. After reading the emails everyday for a week or so, go back and take another test to see how you have improved!

Associative memory learning is a proven method



Kono Kim
I am interested in natural language processing that combines computer science and linguistics.

1 Comment

  1. Stefan says:

    I think reading may help.

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