In my experience, the more captivated I’ve been by a pastor or politician (or debater), the greater their mastery of the English language. Words are the rudimentary elements of communication. Having a varied vocabulary and knowing when and how to use it will give you a definite edge in your debate rounds. We’ll look at the two reasons for this and then three practical strategies for building a better vocabulary.

Reason #1: Audience Interest. As Andrew Pudewa (director of the Institute for Excellence in Writing and NCFCA dad) has noted, using “stronger verbs”—words that create a mental picture—causes your audience to become more engaged. For example, saying “the government did this” or “passed this” is fairly bland. Words such as “implemented” or “instituted” or “enacted” are more vibrant and serve to stimulate the minds of audience and judges.

Reason #2: Clarity. Oftentimes similar words contain subtle differences in meaning. In one of my recent debate rounds, my opponent accused me of arguing that national security is “subjective,” meaning that the definition is essentially fluid. I clarified that while national security is not subjective, it is, in fact, relative—while there is a set definition, it still varies to the nation it protects. Using words precisely to reflect their correct nuances is the hallmark of a good communicator.

One Caution (before moving on). Too many collegiate words can inhibit communication. Sometimes a less precise, more uninteresting, but mainstream word will appeal more to your audience than that seven-syllable monolith you’ve been dying to use. Try speaking at a tenth-grade level.

With this said, here are three practical strategies for building a better vocabulary.

Strategy #1: The Word List. Look up the unfamiliar words you encounter, whether browsing the news, reading a novel, or conversing with friends. Write down the words and review them. Ultimately, integrate these new words into your dialogue, school assignments, and debate research. Usage solidifies memory. Here are three tips to keep it manageable.


  • Reasonable Goals. Don’t try to conquer every single word you encounter! Try starting with five to ten words a week
  • Simple Definitions. If you’re learning the word “grandiloquent,” don’t try to memorize the full definition right away. Instead, condense it into a word or two you will remember, such as “lofty-sounding.”
  • Mnemonics. Associating the word with a mental picture or wordplay aids in recollection. For example, when I hear the word “grandiloquent,” I think “grand + eloquent,” which helps me remember the definition.

Strategy #2: Resources. Thesauruses are invaluable. You can find them as a tool in your word processor or already programed into your computer. I use two: Microsoft Word Thesaurus and the New Oxford American Dictionary on my Mac. Grammarly, a Chrome extension, also has this capability. Of course, the paper book is always useful to have on hand—I recommend Roget’s Super Thesaurus. After you locate the word in the thesaurus, turn to your dictionary to look up the meanings of the different synonyms. This will help you understand the precise meaning of each word. While I’ve never used it, iA Writer comes recommended. It’s a writing app that allows you to track your word usage to ensure that you don’t use words redundantly.

Strategy #3: Imitation. Take a small portion of a famous speech (such as from The Penguin Book of Historic Speeches) and rework the sentence structure and style with your content. Read them to ingrain them in your memory. Imitation is the most effective tool to absorb attributes of the greats.

Even if the task of looking up unfamiliar words seems daunting, start small and keep it simple. Pursuing a greater mastery of the English language will benefit you not only in your debate rounds but also in life.



Joel Erickson competes in Lincoln-Douglas debate in the NCFCA. He has been very successful competitively including numerous first and second place finishes this year. Outside of debate, he loves competing for his local swim team, reading the classics, and musing about philosophy. His greatest passion is teaching and he believes that the true purpose of debate isn’t attaining trophies but forging a mindset of effective communication. Joel works on the blogging team for Ethos Debate.

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