Annotated Bibliography on Vocabulary and Career Success

Studies going back as far as 1934 have consistently proven a direct link between the size and scope of a person’s vocabulary and their financial and career success. Below is an annotated bibliography of these studies:

O’Connor, J. (1934). Vocabulary and success. Atlantic Monthly, 153.2 (Feb), 160-166. Financial success in virtually all occupational endeavors correlates highly with size of vocabulary. “An extensive knowledge of the exact meanings of English words accompanies outstanding success in this country more often than any other single characteristic [we] have been able to isolate and measure” (p. 160). 150-item test used, graduated from easy to difficult. High school average 76 errors; college freshmen average 42 errors; college grads average 27 errors; college profs: 8 errors; major executives: 7 errors—higher than any other group (p. 161). “The executive level which a man or woman reaches is determined to some extent by vocabulary” (p. 161). “Typical non-college-graduate shop foremen average…about as high as college graduates” (p. 162). “Words are the instruments by the means of which men and women grasp the thoughts of others and with which they do much of their own thinking. They are the tools of thought” (p. 163). “The large vocabularies of successful individuals come before success rather than after” (p. 163). Schooling does not, in itself, appear to result in high vocabulary. Vocabs of 20 men who had left school at age 15 averaged just as high as those with college degrees: “It is their vocabularies which are important rather than their formal school education. Their large vocabularies are not the result of schooling” (p. 163). “College graduates, in general, average measurably higher in vocabulary than do not-college persons” (p. 163-4). “Vocabulary advances with an almost unbroken front. The words at the command of an individual are not a miscellany gathered from hither and yon. With a very few exceptions they are all of the words in the dictionary up to those of an order of difficulty at which his vocabulary stops abruptly, and almost no words beyond"”(p. 165). "In the region where learning is taking place, the commonest error is the confusion of a word with its exact opposite…[This] confusion seems…to be a natural step in the learning process” (p. 166).

O’Connor, J. (1940). Unsolved business problems. New York: Human Engineering Laboratory. 100 college seniors studying to become industrial executives given vocab test. All in top 10% became executives; none in bottom 25% did.

Smith, R.M., & Supanich, G.P. (1984). The vocabulary scores of company presidents. Technical Report No. 1984-1. Chicago: Johnson O’Connor Research Foundation. Retested O’Connor (1940) with 50-question test. Corroborated O’Connor’s results: company presidents as a group scored above the mean of those tested by the Foundation (average of testees is 16 years education). “Half of the company presidents scored at or above the 75th percentile for the norm group. Only 12%…scored below the mean” (p. 5-6). “The small positive correlation between Vocabulary Scale Scores and both age and years of education indicates that age and years of education only marginally account for the variation in vocabulary scores” (p. 6). (Weakness: sampling bias—test mailed to presidents of 5,000 largest US companies; 464 returned test; 456 used.)