Language Lab

How many words are in the English language?

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?

Wil is a writer, teacher, learning technologist and keen language learner. He’s taught English in classrooms and online for nearly 10 years, trained teachers in using classroom and web technology, and written e-learning materials for several major websites. He speaks four languages and is currently looking for another one to start learning.

Wil

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