How many words are in the English language?

If we want to talk about how many words there are in English, there are three key numbers to remember: more than a million total words, about 170,000 words in current use, and 20,000-30,000 words used by each individual person.

Many people estimate that there are more than a million words in the English language. In fact, during a project looking at words in digitised books, researchers from Harvard University and Google in 2010, they estimated a total of 1,022,000 words and that the number would grow by several thousand each year. When you see a massive number like this, though, it’s important to remember that this includes different forms of the same word. It also includes lots of words that we could call archaic (they are not used in modern English).

In the second edition of the Oxford English dictionary, there are approximately 600,000 word forms defined. Again, this includes many old-fashioned words that are not in common use any more. The dictionary also expands every year to keep up with new words that are invented to describe the world around us, or to include new meanings for words that already exist in English. A more useful number from the Oxford English Dictionary would be the 171,476 words that are in current use. That means there are examples of each of these words being used recently.

That’s still a lot of words, though, and doesn’t reflect the number of words that English speakers actually use. For that number, let’s look at a recent study by the people at testyourvocab.com who say that most adult native-speakers of English have a vocabulary of 20,000-35,000 words. Obviously, these are not the same words and everyone’s vocabulary will include different words according to their career, education and interested.

So, let’s look back at the question. If we want to talk about how many words there are in English, there are three key numbers to remember: more than a million total words, about 170,000 words in current use, and 20,000-30,000 words used by each individual person.

How about you, though? How many words do you think you know and what are you doing to expand your vocabulary to the 20,000-30,000 that an English native speaker uses?

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7 comments

  1. words are unlimited (infinity), 1 is a number written out it is ONE you can add 1 to any number to create a new number 1, 2, 3, and so on written out one, two, three, and so, so this means the words are unlimited.

    1. You cannot compare words to numbers. Words are finite to any given language wheras numbers are infinite. Even though there are about 1000 words added each year to English, it does make the word number infinite. Our sun is not infinite. Proof being that stars thoughout the universe die out each year, so the length of life on earth is not infinite therefor, IF the earth is not infinite then the number of words can never become infinite. . But, the amount of sentences made of the 1 milliion words currently in the English language, or the amount of utterances, as they are called is infinite. This has been proven, this being infinite number of utterances or sentences, by scientists and mathematicians. I will not give the research but there are , as usual, two opposing schools of thought. Want to know more? Then research more.

        1. Re comparing words to numbers. Just as you can create a new number by adding one to another [for example putting a 1 before a 0 gives you 10] in English you can also combine two numbers to create another.

          For example night and shade when combine create nightshade the name of a lovely but very deadly flower. Sun and shine combine to create sunshine. The list of possible combinations while probably not infinite is still huge.

          If only 1% of the words in the English language can be combined then there are ~10000 words that can be combined to form a new word and if only 10% of the combinations make sense you have over 5,000,000 possible new words.

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