What Are the Different Types of Vocabulary?

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  • Written By: Mark Wollacott
  • Edited By: Lauren Fritsky
  • Last Modified Date: 11 October 2019
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There are four main types of vocabulary. These are reading, writing, listening and speaking vocabularies. A vocabulary means both a list of words and the range of words known by any one person. A person’s vocabulary develops with age and learning.

The word vocabulary entered the English lexicon in the 1530s and is derived from the Latin word ‘vocabularium,’ meaning ‘a list of words.’ It gained its modern meaning, the sum of all words known by a person, in the 1700s. Eminent writers such as William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens are known for their large vocabularies.

If the term is used to mean a list of words, there are several types of vocabulary. These can be divided, as with grammatical classes, into adjectives, nouns and verbs. They could also be divided, as with the different fields of semantics, into categories as diverse as emotions, colors, animals and human body parts. When dealing with the types of vocabulary, the four types, including reading and writing, are the most commonly used.

A person’s knowledge of words is divided into two broad types of vocabulary: the active and the passive. An active piece of vocabulary is a word a person uses and a passive word is one that a person understands, but does not use. There are several degrees of knowledge ranging from no understanding of a word to the full knowledge of the word’s meaning, forms and how to use it.


A read vocabulary is a passive one. This means it is the words understood by the reader when he or she is reading a piece of written text. The person is able to recognize the form of the letters and how they correspond to one another, and how their sum is understood. This also includes understanding a word’s spelling, meaning and the exact meaning in its context.

Listening is also a passive type of vocabulary. The listener is able to link the words being spoken to their meaning. This level of understanding is aided by word context, intonation and, if there is visual contact with the speaker, by gestures and facial expressions. Listening is, like reading, an interpretational form of vocabulary.

Writing is the active vocabulary equivalent to reading. With reading, it forms the core skills needed for someone to be literate. The writer demonstrates his or her knowledge of a word in terms of its meaning and how to spell it and use it correctly.

Speaking is one of the types of vocabulary that demonstrates a person’s knowledge of words. It is an active demonstration that can also rely on other elements such as facial expressions, intonation, pitch and gestures to help others understand its meaning. Knowledge of a word is demonstrated by its good usage and pronunciation.


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What are the various types of vocabulary that can be used in different situations? Give five examples of each.

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