Word Choice: The Art of Using a Thesaurus

Words are tough.

Diction is difficult.

Some people will indignantly tell you that using a thesaurus is for people who don’t have a big enough vocabulary.

Actually they might say: The utilization of a tool of artificial vocabulary expansion effects stasis in creativity and exhibits an ineptitude akin to desperation.

Listen, sometimes when we’re writing, we spend hours trying to think of that word that we know we know but can’t remember.  We scour the vocabulary lists stored in our brains.  We interrogate whoever is in the room with helpful questions like, “Hey, what’s that word for when you’re next to something but not the same, like when you’re compared to something.  It might be a verb.  Or a noun.  I don’t know words.”

After a while of seeing the word "word," I start pronouncing it "ward."

After a while of seeing the word “word,” I start pronouncing it “ward.”

Yet according to some indignant folk, using a Thesaurus is cheating.

To an extent, using a thesaurus incorrectly can lead to dangerous things happening.  A Thesaurus in the hands of an amateur can result in this:

Original sentence – I went to the store and met a man who said hello.

Post-Synonym Craziness – I fled to the cache and decamped a swain who pronounced  aloha.

The issue with this isn’t just that it was done thoughtlessly, but it was done without context.  Synonyms often fail because people who employ them don’t realize the context of a word.  They don’t realize that when they substitute ‘swain’ for ‘man’, is that swain is not just an archaic term, but is also a term for a young country youth, often a lover, sometimes a shepherd boy.  I don’t know about you, but I don’t often expect to meet a country shepherd lover who greets people with “Aloha” at the store.  But maybe that’s just me.

Totally a legit way to meet a guy.

Totally a legit way to meet a guy.

So the key to using a thesaurus properly is to know the definition and context of the words you choose.  A thesaurus can help you think of words you already know.  It’s like using the Search function in a giant word document.  You know you used the word “perfunctory” somewhere, but you can’t remember the details, so you use a tool to help you locate what you’re looking for.  You haven’t cheated, because you already knew it was there, and you just needed assistance finding it.


When to use a thesaurus:

When you’re trying to think of the right word, but you can’t quite place your finger on it.  It’s on the tip of your tongue, dancing the tango on your taste buds, but you can’t quite spit it out.

When you notice that you’re getting repetitive with your word choice.  This stems from my own experience of using some of the same descriptors or nouns over and over and over again in my writing.  I was inspired to do this post because of this post by the lovely jodiellewellyn.  What words to cut and replace.

Now, this doesn’t mean to go on a replace rampage.  It just means that using a thesaurus will help you find a better, more accurate word for something you were already trying to say.  For me, I use Ctrl-F (the find function) in a word document to see how often I use a specific word.  Usually I do that when I realize I’ve been getting a bit repetitive with my diction.  And that can happen when you’re writing a longer piece of fiction such as a book.  You get so wrapped up in plot and advancement, that the art of language sometimes falls by the wayside.

Thesauruses can remind you of words you’ve forgotten, and help you find the words you need.

Don't forget why writing is FUN!

Don’t forget why writing is FUN!


One thought on “Word Choice: The Art of Using a Thesaurus

  1. Pingback: List of Words to Avoid Using | The Desultories

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