Charles Harrington Elster

Verbal Advantage

"People judge you
by the words you use."


FROM THE INTRODUCTION TO VERBAL ADVANTAGE

by Charles Harrington Elster


Let me guess why you picked up this book. You want to become a better writer and speaker. You want to use the English language correctly and with confidence.

You’re looking for something that will help you learn more words and learn them swiftly—something that’s not just informative but also interesting and fun to read.

You don’t want word games. You want results.

Stop right here.

Verbal Advantage is precisely what you’re looking for: the most comprehensive, accessible, and effective vocabulary-building program available today.

Here’s what you can expect from Verbal Advantage:

By the time you finish reading this book you will have more than tripled your normal rate of learning vocabulary. And when you have mastered all the words in the program, your vocabulary level will be in the top five percent of all educated adults. You will also know how to avoid common errors of grammar, usage, and pronunciation, and you will possess the tools to continue building your verbal skills for the rest of your life.

Throughout the Verbal Advantage program I will be your personal guide on a tour of the English language, a tour that I guarantee will help you improve your word power dramatically and permanently. Along the way I will also coach you in how to use the language with greater clarity, precision, and style.

Let me tell you a bit about myself.

I am an author, journalist, and radio commentator who specializes in writing about the English language. Like most serious writers, I care deeply about words—where they came from, what they mean, how they are used and pronounced. In fact, I think it’s fair to say that I’m afflicted with a terminal passion for words.

Allow me to explain how I contracted this most pleasant malady.

For as long as I can remember I have been in love with the beauty, rhythm, subtlety, and power of language, and from an early age I aspired to a career working with words. Like many writers, I acquired my affection for words from my parents. Although both my father and mother are retired professional musicians, they have always been avid readers with a fine ear for language as well as music.

When I was young they read me stories and poems at bedtime, and as I grew older they encouraged me to read widely on my own. I often had lengthy discussions with them about books and language, and whenever we had a question or a dispute about a word, the hefty unabridged dictionary in our living room was the final authority.

The consequence of this verbally intensive upbringing was that two parents who loved language but made music for a living wound up with a son who loves music but makes his living with words.

But that’s enough about me, because this book is not about me and my writing credentials. It’s about you, and how you can achieve the verbal advantage.

Verbal Advantage is about definitions, so let’s begin by defining the phrase "verbal advantage." What exactly is a "verbal advantage"? Does it suggest what smart, successful people know about language? Does it refer to the words they use in conversation and writing?

Yes, in part. But in this book "verbal advantage" encompasses something more than just what educated people already know about using the language. It also means what educated people ought to know about using the language—and how using it well can help them succeed.

In short, a "verbal advantage" is the ability to use words in a precise and powerful manner, to communicate clearly, correctly, and effectively in every situation, both on and off the job. In this book I intend to take your ability with words and turn it into mastery.

Numerous studies have shown that there is a correlation between career and financial success and an above-average vocabulary, and that the level of success people achieve is linked to the number of words they command. You may be on the right track, but are you as productive and successful as you know you can be? In the long run all your hard work and all the knowledge you gain from experience may not produce the results you expect if you lack the confidence that comes from an accompanying mastery of words.

As the syndicated columnist William Raspberry once put it, "Good English, well spoken and well written, will open more doors than a college degree. . . . Bad English will slam doors you don’t even know exist."

Verbal Advantage will give you most of the linguistic tools you need to communicate more effectively and confidently, and I will show you how to use them with precision. If you like, consider Verbal Advantage an apprenticeship to a second career—one that can help you immeasurably and enhance your chances of success. When you finish reading this book, you’ll be on your own. But I think you’ll find yourself prepared to meet the challenge of achieving and maintaining a verbal advantage.

* * *


Improving your verbal skills is not an easy task, but it doesn’t have to be a chore. In fact, it can be one of the most rewarding activities you will ever undertake. Few things can equal the satisfaction that comes from using the right word at the appropriate moment or realizing that the way you have chosen to express something has moved or gratified or persuaded your audience.

Let’s begin, then, with a brief summary of what you stand to gain from reading this book.

You will learn about vocabulary building and why it is indispensable to your personal development. I will teach you the principles and techniques of building a large and exact vocabulary and introduce you to words that will add clarity to your writing and infuse your conversation with style. You will also discover how to put your powerful new vocabulary into action right away, and how to make the words you’ve learned serve you well for the rest of your life.

Throughout this book we will also explore the subject of usage versus "abusage"—in other words, how to use, not abuse, the language. You will learn how usage changes, why it changes, and why certain changes have been accepted and others have not. I will also cover some perplexing problems of usage that trouble even the best writers and speakers. Finally, I will address the issue of rules—good rules versus bad rules—and discuss how you can strike a balance between current standard usage and what seems natural and correct to you.

Building a powerful vocabulary and learning how to use words properly require that you also develop your knowledge of a related subject: pronunciation.

It is a sad fact that many educated people who have invested a great deal of time and energy building impressive vocabularies have not bothered to learn how to pronounce the words they have acquired. That deficiency leads to a twofold tragedy. First, to those who look up to the speaker as a more knowledgeable person, the mispronouncer does the disservice of passing along his or her mispronunciations. Second, to those who know something about words and how they should be pronounced, the mispronouncer, no matter how intelligent, will appear uneducated, even foolish.

The point is, if you have taken the time to learn the meaning of a word and how to use it properly, then why not also learn how to pronounce it correctly?

With Verbal Advantage, not only will you learn the proper pronunciation of words that are new to you, you will also learn to avoid common mispronunciations of familiar words—ones you may be mispronouncing right now without realizing it. In addition, I will teach you some simple techniques that will help you continue to improve your speech on your own.

Building your vocabulary is the primary goal of this program, and research has shown that the most effective way to build your word power rapidly and permanently is to learn words in their order of difficulty. Certain words are harder than others; therefore it stands to reason that you have to know the easier words before you can learn and retain the harder ones. When you know what reckless and rash mean, you’re ready to learn the more difficult synonyms impulsive, imprudent, and impetuous. And when you have those words under your belt, then you can tackle the challenging synonyms precipitate and temerarious.

In short, you are far more likely to remember words if you are exposed to them in ascending order of difficulty. That is why I have made Verbal Advantage a graduated vocabulary-building program, which means the words get harder as you go along.
You will proceed through ten levels of vocabulary, each level more challenging than the last. For example, Level 1 contains words familiar to about 60 to 70 percent of adults—that is, words known to many high school graduates and most college graduates. By the end of Level 5 you will have raised your vocabulary to about the 75th percentile—the top quarter of all educated adults. By the end of Level 8 your vocabulary will have surpassed that of most executives and professionals, including those with advanced degrees. And when you complete the tenth and final level you will have progressed beyond 95 percent of the entire population. You will command an armory of words that only a handful of people in every thousand can match.

Each level of Verbal Advantage focuses on specially selected "keywords" essential to educated discourse. But those words constitute only a fraction of what you’ll learn from this book. Carefully study all the keyword discussions and you will learn scores of useful related words and a plethora (PLETH-uh-ruh, great number or quantity, abundance) of challenging synonyms and antonyms. You will also discover where the words you are learning come from and how their history has influenced their current meaning.

In addition to building your vocabulary, Verbal Advantage will guide you in the subtleties of using the language properly and precisely. Each level contains interludes on commonly misused words, commonly confused words, and commonly mispronounced words. You will learn how to avoid various errors of grammar, diction, and pronunciation that vex even the most educated adults. I will show you how to eliminate redundancies—flabby, repetitive phrases—from your writing and speech, and help you heed the advice of Mark Twain, who said, "Use the right word, and not its second cousin." Finally, the synonym studies in the key-word discussions will develop your ability to distinguish wisely between words of similar meaning.

* * *


Let’s return now to the link between vocabulary and success.

The theory that knowing more words can help you succeed is nothing new. Since the early 20th century researchers have documented the connection between a strong vocabulary and academic and professional success.

Dean Trembly, professor emeritus at California Polytechnic State University, supports the thesis that building your vocabulary enhances your chances of success. In his book Learning to Use Your Aptitudes, Trembly explains that "a large vocabulary is more than knowing the difficult words; it is knowing the easier words more thoroughly and using them with greater precision. . . . A powerful vocabulary gives you the facility to use the easier words more smoothly. . . . As with grades in school," writes Trembly, "money earnings are related to vocabulary. Within each occupation, those with larger vocabularies are more likely to profit. Put a dollar sign in front of each additional word you learn."

Perhaps the most influential researcher to explore the connection between vocabulary and achievement was Johnson O’Connor, founder of the Human Engineering Laboratory, now called the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation.

O’Connor was a Harvard-educated engineer who devoted his life to identifying and measuring human aptitudes and studying their relationship to a knowledge of English vocabulary. After more than twenty years of testing thousands of Americans of all ages, occupations, and levels of education, O’Connor concluded that "an exact and extensive vocabulary is an important concomitant of success. . . . Furthermore, such a vocabulary can be acquired. It increases as long as a person remains in school or college, but without conscious effort does not change materially thereafter."

Margaret E. Broadley is an authority on Johnson O’Connor’s work and the author of several books on human aptitudes. In Your Natural Gifts she explains how, as far back as the 1930s, O’Connor’s Human Engineering Laboratory discovered, as Broadley puts it, "a close relationship between a large, precise knowledge of English words and achievement in life."

"Worldly success, earnings and management status," writes Broadley, "correlated with vocabulary scores. In follow-up studies of persons tested as much as twenty or thirty years ago, a limited vocabulary is proving an important factor in holding men and women back from achieving the position which their aptitudes showed they should have gained."

Broadley continues: "A low vocabulary is a serious handicap. Ambitious and energetic persons can push ahead in their jobs just so far, but then they reach a plateau caused by low vocabulary. They never advance. And while youthful zest and high aptitudes can enable us to forge ahead despite low vocabulary, when we become mature the world expects us to know something and we are judged on knowledge rather than our possibilities. The world doesn’t see our aptitudes, but it pays for knowledge because that can be seen."

Broadley then gets down to the nitty-gritty. "Studies show that at middle-age the low-vocabulary persons are stuck in routine jobs. Furthermore, when big companies have their shakedowns and mergers, too often the low-vocabulary persons find themselves out on the street. Too often they place the blame on prejudice, inside politics, and personal antagonism when the truth can be traced to low vocabulary. . . .

"Only about 3,500 words separate the high vocabulary person from the low," Broadley concludes. "Yet these 3,500 words can mean the difference between success and failure."

It is worth noting here that company presidents and upper-level business executives have consistently achieved the highest scores in the vocabulary tests administered by the Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. As a group, executives score better than editors, writers, college professors, scientists, doctors, lawyers, psychologists, architects, and engineers—all high-vocabulary occupations.

The foundation’s researchers are not quite sure what to make of that finding, but they do know one thing: If you wish to succeed in your career, your vocabulary level must at least equal the average level of the members of your profession. If you wish to excel, your vocabulary must surpass that of your colleagues.

As Johnson O’Connor said, "Words are the instruments of thought by which men and women grasp the thoughts of others, and with which they do most of their thinking."

To paraphrase that: Words are the tools of thought, and it follows that if your tools aren’t the sharpest ones in the shed, you can’t expect to have an edge in the struggle for success.

There is one other point about vocabulary and success that I would like to clarify before we go any further. Researchers and language experts have known for many years that vocabulary is the key to success, but what does that really mean? It is true that various studies have shown that, particularly among business executives, English vocabulary level often correlates with salary level. However, there are many wealthy people who have low vocabularies and lack ability with language, just as there are many people who earn modest salaries but who have excellent vocabularies and a wide knowledge of the world.

The point is, if your only ambition in life is to make wads of money, there are ways to do that without building your vocabulary. Therefore it is important that you do not equate building a large vocabulary only with padding your bank balance and diversifying your stock portfolio. Vocabulary is the key to success, but wealth is not the only yardstick of success.

What I am talking about is a definition of success that encompasses more than salaries and investments. What I am talking about is your career—what you do and how well you do it—and also your personal development—how you can make the most of your natural abilities and achieve your goals in life. That is where a powerful vocabulary can help you. That is where knowing the precise meanings of many words gives you an invaluable advantage—a Verbal Advantage.

What it boils down to can be expressed in two words: career satisfaction.

Building a powerful vocabulary can help you advance your career, because as you improve your skill with language you will become a better speaker, a better writer, a better reader, and a better listener. And if you are all of those things, then you probably will be a more successful person. . . .

Are you ready to begin your journey toward a more powerful and precise command of the English language?

Let’s go. I’ll be with you all the way.

# # #


Copyright © 2000 by Netword, Inc.
All rights reserved.
Reproduction without permission is prohibited.

Selected Works

Books
Articles
Colin Kaepernick and Charles Harrington Elster have something in common: exercising their First Amendment rights.
In the cover story for the October-November 2013 issue of Copyediting, Charlie looks at how the relative pronoun who is taking over the traditional role of that and which.
Read Charlie's amiable rant on redundancy, which appeared in the August-September 2012 issue of Copyediting.
Timeless tips for aspiring vocabulary builders.
Charlie beats up on Merriam-Webster in the Boston Globe.
At a loss for words? Read one of Charlie's guest "On Language" columns for The New York Times Magazine.
Read Charlie's guest "On Language" piece about resistentialism.
Shopping for a new dictionary? Here's some sage advice.
Charlie's brave new words for a wireless world.
Read one of Charlie's articles in SPELL/Binder.
Read a profile of Charlie in San Diego Home/Garden Lifestyles.
Letters
Charlie explains why he left the public radio show.