Improving Style, Verbal Fluency, and Active Vocabulary – Observations Wanted

Why is American literature, though very correct, so flat in style? Why does such a large gap yawn between our passive and actives vocabularies? Why can we not speak even with the same precision we use in writing? Why do Americans talk so stupid?

I think one great contributing factor is that education no longer includes recitation. Upon learning lessons in various subjects, our ancestors used to recite these lessons verbatim in order to receive credit. While problems may have existed with this model, the entire disappearance of recitation probably tongue-ties us, leaving us to compensate with shortcuts – to memorize catch-phrases from tv shows, to express indignation with a tiny repertoire of curses and enthusiasm with a tiny repertoire of slang, to have difficult finishing any sentence longer than 8 or 9 words on the fly, and to consider people who can come up with a colorful or unusual word in the course of conversation as grotesquely abnormal. (“You talk like a book!”)

Even involvement in theater might help. But I can’t imagine any course of exercise more conducive to verbal fluency than to write essays to a grammatical and vocabularic standard, memorize them, and then recite them for credit. Surely some brain-training would result? I’m going to try it with my son.

Meanwhile, I’d like to hear from anyone with experience related to my little theory. Are you involved in theater? Has your education, or that of someone you know, involved recitation, even of poems or scripture? If so, have you seen any effects?

P.S. I wonder – might this exercise also help students acquire verbal reasoning skills – and even overcome shyness?

Also, we must consider that resurrecting this educational practice might require several generations to exert its full effect. The first generation might see only a 5 to 15 percent increase in verbal fluency – but next would be able to build further improvement on that increase since the conversation its students would hear at home during their early years would be somewhat more able than their parents’ was.

We could also consider the potential effect of this practice on national discourse and politics.


  1. I have struggled with this issue all my life. For a long time I thought it was a personality problem (shy, introverted, aloof. Now I understand the cultural influences.

    Talking with my buddies in half sentences, cheap popular expressions, crude jokes is how I grew up. In high school the teachers never asked our opinions, so we had little chance to learn to express ourselves intelligently. By the time I got to a university I was too intimidated by the few articulate students who seemed to make a game out of speaking in paragraphs the rest of us listened, nodded sagely, and took notes.

    By contrast, I remember hearing much later from an acquaintance who described her elocution classes as a youngster in England. If I hadn’t studied Latin in school I wouldn’t even have know what the word “elocution” meant. I realized how much I had missed as a child. I think you are absolutely right about memorization and public speaking. Also about drama classes. I wish I had been on the debate team instead of the football team. I shouldn’t have had to wait until I was an accredited teacher before I ever spoke aloud in front of a group.

    But my worst experience of language shortcomings came in my early 30’s when, as an exchange teacher at the University of Thessaloniki, I was asked by a very respectful student if I would approve of her request to transfer to Mr. Jackson’s class. “Certainly,” I replied, “but out of curiosity, I wonder if you mind telling me your reason.” Her answer has haunted me ever since. “Well, your class is fun and interesting, but you see, I’m trying to learn English well enough to become a teacher here in Greece, and the British professors. . . , they use all the words in the dictionary when they talk, and the Americans use a lot of the same words over and over. ”

    I still have trouble expressing an idea out loud, but now I can’t blame it on education any more. Maybe I’ll try using age as an excuse. 😧


    • Albert, thanks for sharing! Yet again, your life experience enriches us all. Education has a long reach, but more than that, we are all born up on the sea of all the rest of us… culture goes much deeper than we often realize.


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