My passive vocabulary — words I recognize or use in writing, but don't use in conversation — is, like most people's, much larger than my active vocabulary.
Although I applaud the desire to build one's vocabulary, people are generally better off using words they're comfortable with, in both writing and speaking. One common mistake of aspiring writers is the idea that sophisticated writing requires fancy words. In fact, the most sophisticated writing is the clearest. Nothing distracts a reader more than having to look a word up; if you really need a word that will be unfamiliar to most readers, try to make its meaning clear in context.
These are five words I might throw around on paper, but won't say aloud for fear of sounding ignorant.
1. Banal. It's reassuring that I'm not alone on this one. The American Heritage Dictionary gives three acceptable pronunciations — rhyming with canal, anal, and withdrawal — a note adds that H.W. Fowler, sixty years ago, recommended a pronunciation that rhymed with panel. "When several pronunciations of a word are widely used, there is really no right or wrong one," the discussion concludes. It's easier to say "trite."
2. Medieval. I pronounce it incorrectly, I know — it's a four-syllable word, and I elide it to three because the pronunciations that are allegedly correct (mee-dee-EE-vul in American English, MED-ee-ee-vul in British English) sound wrong to me. I can't say this word aloud without saying it two or three times, testing the sound of it. I do know how to say "Middle Ages," although "chivalric" has a similar issue of not knowing where the stress falls (the dictionary prefers "shiv-AL-ric," but says "SHIV-al-ric" is okay too).
3. Misanthropy. I started to use this word in conversation earlier this week, to describe my current frame of mind, and realized that I did not know where the stress should fall. The word misanthrope emphasizes the first syllable; the word philanthropy emphasizes the second. The dictionary says that misanthropy should sound like philanthropy, with the stress on the second syllable, but two people I asked said that sounded wrong to them, so I'm saying "free-floating hostility" instead.
4. Prerogative. Most people skip right over that first "r," and I do too — to the extent that I spelled the word wrong in a city-wide spelling bee more than 30 years ago. (Who knows how my life might have changed if I'd won that spelling bee? But I digress.) I do know how to pronounce this word. It just brings back painful memories to pronounce it correctly, so I avoid it.
5. Sherbet. It's pronounced "SHUR-bit" — it is — but most people I know say "shur-bert," with the stress equally distributed between both syllables, or even "shur-BERT," with the emphasis on the second syllable. In fact, American Heritage gives "sherbert" as an acceptable second spelling, with the second syllable stressed. Did you know this word means different things in the US, the UK and Australia? In the US, it's a fruit-flavored frozen dessert, made with little or no dairy or maybe egg whites instead of dairy; in the UK, it can also be a carbonated drink made of sweetened fruit juice; in Australia, it is "an alcoholic beverage, especially beer." The dictionary explains the distinction between "sherbet" and "sorbet," a fruit-flavored ice, but I think I'll just stick to sorbet.