When taking the ACT essay section, students have 45 minutes to write a well-reasoned argumentative essay about a given prompt. The new ACT Essay prompts tend to be about “debate” topics — two sides of an issue are presented, with no obviously “right” side. Oftentimes, these subjects carry implications for broader issues such as freedom or morality. Test-takers are expected to convey some stance on the issue and support their argument with relevant facts and analysis.
In addition to some of the more obvious categories, like grammar and structure, students’ essays are also evaluated on their mastery of the English language. One way to demonstrate such mastery is through the correct usage of advanced vocabulary words. Below are 50 above-average vocabulary words sorted by the contexts in which they could most easily be worked into an ACT essay.
Context 1: Factual Support For ACT Essay
These words can easily be used when stating facts and describing examples to support one’s argument. On ACT essays, common examples are trends or patterns of human behavior, current or past events, and large-scale laws or regulations.
- Antecedent – a precursor, or preceding event for something – N
- Bastion – an institution/place/person that strongly maintains particular principles, attitudes, or activities – N
- Bellwether – something that indicates a trend – N
- Burgeon – to begin to grow or increase rapidly – V
- Catalyst – an agent that provokes or triggers change – N
- Defunct – no longer in existence or functioning – Adj.
- Entrenched – characterized by something that is firmly established and difficult to change – Adj.
- Foster – to encourage the development of something – V
- Galvanize – to shock or excite someone into taking action – V
- Impetus – something that makes a process or activity happen or happen faster – N
- Inadvertent – accidental or unintentional – Adj.
- Incessant – never ending; continuing without pause – Adj.
- Inflame – to provoke or intensify strong feelings in someone – V
- Instill – to gradually but firmly establish an idea or attitude into a person’s mind – V
- Lucrative – having a large reward, monetary or otherwise – Adj.
- Myriad – countless or extremely large in number – Adj.
- Precipitate – to cause something to happen suddenly or unexpectedly – V
- Proponent – a person who advocates for something – N
- Resurgence – an increase or revival after a period of limited activity – N
- Revitalize – to give something new life and vitality – V
- Ubiquitous – characterized by being everywhere; widespread – Adj.
- Watershed – an event or period that marks a turning point – N
Context 2: Analysis
These words can often be used when describing common patterns between examples or casting some form of opinion or judgement.
- Anomaly – deviation from the norm – N
- Automaton – a mindless follower; someone who acts in a mechanical fashion – N
- Belie – to fail to give a true impression of something – V
- Cupidity – excessive greed – Adj.
- Debacle – a powerful failure; a fiasco – N
- Demagogue – a political leader or person who looks for support by appealing to prejudices instead of using rational arguments – N
- Deter – to discourage someone from doing something by making them doubt or fear the consequences – V
- Discredit – to harm the reputation or respect for someone – V
- Draconian – characterized by strict laws, rules and punishments – Adj.
- Duplicitous – deliberately deceitful in speech/behavior – Adj.
- Egregious – conspicuously bad; extremely evil; monstrous and outrageous – Adj.
- Exacerbate – to make a situation worse – V
- Ignominious – deserving or causing public disgrace or shame – Adj.
- Insidious – proceeding in a subtle way but with harmful effects – Adj.
- Myopic – short-sighted; not considering the long run – Adj.
- Pernicious – dangerous and harmful – Adj.
- Renegade – a person who betrays an organization, country, or set of principles – N
- Stigmatize – to describe or regard as worthy of disgrace or disapproval – V
- Superfluous – unnecessary – Adj.
- Venal – corrupt; susceptible to bribery – Adj.
- Virulent – extremely severe or harmful in its effects – Adj.
- Zealot – a person who is fanatical and uncompromising in pursuit of their religious, political, or other ideals – N
Context 3: Thesis and Argument
These words are appropriate for taking a stance on controversial topics, placing greater weight on one or the other end of the spectrum, usually touching on abstract concepts, and/or related to human nature or societal issues.
- Autonomy – independence or self governance; the right to make decisions for oneself – N
- Conundrum – a difficult problem with no easy solution – N
- Dichotomy – a division or contrast between two things that are presented as opposites or entirely different – N
- Disparity – a great difference between things – N
- Divisive – causing disagreement or hostility between people – Adj.
- Egalitarian – favoring social equality and equal rights – Adj.
Although it’s true that vocabulary is one of the lesser criteria by which students’ ACT essays are graded, the small boost it may give to a student’s score could be the difference between a good score and a great score. For those who are already confident in their ability to create and support a well-reasoned argument but still want to go the extra mile, having a few general-purpose, impressive-sounding vocabulary words up one’s sleeve is a great way to tack on even more points.
To learn more about the ACT test, check out these CollegeVine posts:
Angela is a student at Cornell College of Engineering. At CollegeVine, she works primarily as ACT Verbal Division Manager. She enjoys teaching a variety of subjects and helping students realize their dreams.
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Ever noticed how some writers have an uncanny ability to toy with your emotions?
Within the span of a few pages, you can go from shaking with excitement to bawling your eyes out to flying into a rage and throwing the book across the room. It’s the hallmark of great writing, proof of mastery of the craft, and the yardstick by which aspiring writers measure their work.
And it goes beyond storytelling.
Sure, taking the reader on an emotional roller coaster ride is essential in novels and short stories, but what about emails, resumes, blog posts, proposals? They’re all designed to influence the reader in some way. You want to pass along information, yes, but you also want the reader to feel a certain way about that information.
Maybe you want to impress them, get them excited, make them cautious, get them angry, encourage them to keep going, or any number of emotions. The better a job you do at making them feel, the more influential you are, and the better your chances of getting what you want.
So, you might wonder… how?
The world is full of people who can scribble down their ideas, but to bring those ideas to life, to make them take up residence in the mind of the reader, lurking in the background, tugging, pulling, and cajoling their emotions until they think and feel exactly as you want? That’s a rare skill indeed.
The good news is it can be yours. There’s even a shortcut.
How to Instantly Become a Better Writer
Use power words.
Rather than describe what I mean, let’s deconstruct an example from the great Winston Churchill:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstrous tyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
Well, there was a lot on the line. Under attack from Germany, Britain was fighting for its survival, and somehow, someway, Churchill had to find a way to inspire his countrymen to greatness.
He chose words. Or, to be more accurate, power words.
Let’s take a look at the passage again, this time with all the power words underlined:
We have before us an ordeal of the most grievous kind. We have before us many, many long months of struggle and of suffering. You ask, what is our policy? I can say: It is to wage war, by sea, land and air, with all our might and with all the strength that God can give us; to wage war against a monstroustyranny, never surpassed in the dark, lamentable catalogue of human crime. That is our policy. You ask, what is our aim? I can answer in one word: It is victory, victory at all costs, victory in spite of all terror, victory, however long and hard the road may be; for without victory, there is no survival.
Each underlined word makes the audience feel something. In this case, Churchill intermixes words that cause fear, such as “struggle,” “tyranny,” and “terror,” with words that cause hope, such as “strength,” “God,” and “victory.” The last, in particular, is repeated over and over, practically drilling the emotion into the minds of the audience.
It’s no accident. Smart speakers, as well as their speechwriters, sprinkle their speeches with carefully-chosen power words, drawing the audience from one emotion to another as skillfully as any novelist or screenwriter.
Granted, that’s not all they do. The best writers use an entire tool chest of techniques to create emotion, and power words are only one such tool.
But there’s good news.
For beginning writers, power words are one of the easiest tools to master. Unlike many storytelling strategies which can take years of practice to master, you can start sprinkling power words into your writing, and you’ll notice an immediate lift in the quality of your prose.
All you lack is a list of power words to use, but of course, I have you covered there too. 🙂
317 Power Words to Start Using Immediately
For years now, every time I mentioned power words to my students, someone always asked:
“Where can I get a list? Is there a book I can buy?”
Sadly, not that I’m aware of. That’s why I created this list.
Slowly, over a period of several weeks, I catalogued all the power words that jumped out to me, organizing them into categories based on the emotion you want to create, so you can easily find the right word. In the future, I’ll also update the list, adding new words on a regular basis to make it the most comprehensive list of power words available anywhere.
It costs nothing. All I ask in return is you share it with your friends and readers when appropriate, helping it reach the people who need it most.
Want a handy PDF containing all 317 Power Words (plus 50 exclusive bonus words) to download and keep? Get it Here.
Calling All Fearmongers
Let’s do a little experiment.
Just for a moment, stop reading this post, turn on the television, and go to a major news channel. Watch it for five minutes, listening for the words below.
Chances are, you’ll hear dozens of them. Here’s why:
Fear is without a doubt the most powerful emotion for grabbing and keeping an audience’s attention. To make sure you don’t change the channel, news networks load up with fear words, making you worry you might miss something important.
It’s effective. Granted, you can overdo it, but in my opinion, most writers don’t use these types of words nearly enough. They really do connect with people.
Here’s a bunch to get you started:
Give Your Readers a Pep Talk
Let’s face it.
When they’re reading, most people aren’t exactly bouncing off the walls with energy and enthusiasm. They’re probably bored, maybe a little depressed, and almost definitely tired. And they’re looking for something, anything, that’ll wake them up and make them feel better.
The good news?
Your writing can do that for them. Use these power words to give them a pep talk and get them charged up again:
Take a Page from Cosmopolitan (or Playboy)
Like it or not, lust is one of the core human emotions.
Just look at the men’s and women’s magazines in the checkout aisle, and you’ll see what I mean. Nearly every headline on the cover is either blatantly or indirectly about sex.
And it works, not just for men’s and women’s magazines, but for anything. As a writer, you can use words that inspire lust to make almost anything intriguing.
For example: take a look at these two posts I wrote for Copyblogger:
Sex, Lies, and the Art of Commanding Attention
Copyblogger Editor Admits to Sleeping with Readers and Recommends You Do the Same
Both posts use the power of lust to teach people about headlines, of all things. Proof positive that it can be used for anything.
Here’s a lascivious list to get you started:
Start a Riot
As writers, sometimes our job is to anger people.
Not for the fun of it, mind you, but because someone is doing something wrong, and the community needs to take action to correct it. The problem is, with wrongdoing, most people are pretty apathetic – they’ll wait until the situation becomes entirely intolerable to do anything, and by then, it’s often too late.
So, we have to fan the flames. By using the below power words, you can connect with people’s anger, and slowly but surely, you can work them into a frenzy. Just be careful who you target. Lawyers can eat you alive if you pick on the wrong person. 🙂
Know it all
Sick and Tired
Stomp on Their Greed Glands
The legendary copywriter Gary Halbert once said, “If you want people to buy something, stomp on their greed glands until they bleed.” Graphic, yes, but also true.
Skim through good sales copy, and you’ll find a lot of these power words. Many of them are so overused they’ve become cliché, but that doesn’t stop them from working.
The truth is, nearly every human being on the planet is interested in either making or saving money. Use these words to tap into those desires:
Make Them Feel Safe
Greed isn’t the only emotion you want buyers to feel. You also want to make them feel safe.
They need to trust both you and your product or service. They need to have confidence you’ll deliver. They need to believe they’ll get results.
Of course, building that kind of trust starts with having a quality brand and reputation, but the words you use to describe yourself and your product or service also matter. To help your customers feel safe, try to use as many of these power words as possible:
No Questions Asked
No Strings Attached
Try before You Buy
Offer Them a Forbidden Fruit
Remember when you were a kid, and someone told you NOT to do something? From that point on, you could think about little else, right?
The truth is, we’re all fascinated by the mysterious and forbidden. It’s like it’s programmed into our very nature.
So why not tap into that programming?
Whenever you need to create curiosity, sprinkle these power words throughout your writing, and readers won’t be able to help being intrigued:
Behind the Scenes
Want a handy PDF containing all 317 Power Words (plus 50 exclusive bonus words) to download and keep? Get it Here.
Go Ahead and Tell Me. What Words Did I Miss?
Yes, this is an enormous list, but so many power words are available, nobody can possibly catch them all on the first pass. What are some other words that seem to have that extra little spark of emotion inside them?
Leave your answer in the comments, and as time goes by, I’ll come back periodically and update the list. Eventually, I hope to have over 1,000 words here, separated and organized by category, making this the definitive resource for power words on the web.
Thanks in advance for commenting and sharing the post with your friends!
About the Author: Jon Morrow has asked repeatedly to be called “His Royal Awesomeness” but no one listens to him. So, he settles for CEO of Smart Blogger. Poor man. 🙂