On Writing

The Thesaurus: Friend or Foe?

The thesaurus, not a dinosaur, but a book similar to a dictionary. It’s a collection of words listed in groups of synonyms and related concepts. Do you use the word ‘confusing’ too much? Never fear! The thesaurus can help! With just a few clicks I can find a whole bunch of new words to use, such as baffling, contradictory, and mysterious (thanks oxford thesaurus). Sounds great, right? Wrong! A thesaurus is a valuable tool that needs to be used wisely. There are pros and cons to using one. If used correctly, a thesaurus can be invaluable. If used incorrectly, it could become your worst enemy. Here’s why.

The good stuff.
There are many advantages to using a thesaurus correctly. It can help you to improve your vocabulary and help you to find that perfect word you’ve been searching for. This is important to keep your work interesting and engaging.  Do you find that you repeat certain words too much? No problem! A thesaurus can help. Let’s use the example ‘confusing’ again. Here is my simple sentence.

“This homework is confusing,” the boy said.
We can replace this word with ‘baffling’. Why? Because they mean similar things. According to the oxford thesaurus, ‘confusing’ means “bewildering or perplexing”, and ‘baffling’ means “impossible to understand; perplexing.” So it’s safe to assume that in most (but not all) cases, these words can be used interchangeably.

“This homework is baffling,” the boy said.
Look at that! The thesaurus has taught you a new word. BUT! You be careful it doesn’t trap you.

Replacing your words with the wrong ones.
A lot of authors fall into the trap of relying on the thesaurus. While it can be helpful (I use it myself) you need to make sure that the new words you pick mean what you think they mean. Have a look at the three I provided just before. ‘Confusing’ could have turned into ‘baffling’, ‘contradictory’, or ‘mysterious’. Do you see the problem? Whilst related to the word ‘confusing’, these three words all mean different things. As mentioned before, ‘baffling’ is probably suitable to use, but the other two, not so much. They may not fit the context of your sentence. According to oxford, ‘contradictory’ means “mutually opposed or inconsistent”, and ‘mysterious’ means “difficult or impossible to understand, explain, or identify.” These are quite different to the ‘confusing’ definition we looked at before. While similar in meaning, they are certainly not words you can use interchangeably. They will depend on the context of your sentence.

“This homework is contradictory,” the boy said.
This is a good example of where the word may actually fit into the sentence depending on the context. But, you do have to think about whether the homework is actually contradictory or not. As the sentence is so short and we have no further context, the word fits. If, however, we knew that there was nothing that the homework was inconsistent with, then it would not be appropriate.

“This homework is mysterious,” the boy said.
Yeah, probably not the best fit. Again, depending on the circumstances, it may work. But, if we’re just discussing your average school work, then no, it probably isn’t mysterious.

You need to make sure that the words you are using work. To avoid falling into this trap, make sure you always use a thesaurus in conjunction with a dictionary. When you select a new word, make sure it means what you think it does.

The risk of becoming “showy”.
So you have your word ‘confusing.’ What a boring, useless word. I think I’ll replace it with something else. Hm.. let’s look at the oxford thesaurus … oh ‘impenetrable’ sounds cool, let’s click on that … not quite the right meaning … ‘abstruse’ is a synonym though. That sounds cool! And it means “difficult to understand”. Yay! Let’s put that into my sentence ….

“This homework is abstruse,” the boy said.
Even though, technically speaking, the meaning of the word is appropriate, it is still not a suitable word in this sentence. It sounds strange that a boy would use a word like that.  Why use that word at all and not just stick with something simpler? After all, how many people happen to know what the word ‘abstruse’ means (I sure didn’t)?
Using big, fancy words for the sake of it can become very tempting when using a thesaurus, but you must refrain from doing so! The only time that this is acceptable (in my eyes) is if you are writing from the perspective of a character who does this. Imagine a pompous, overcompensating aristocrat, for example. In general writing, however, it is a big no no, and you can see why.

Find the balance.
Please don’t think for a second that I never want you to use a thesaurus. I, in fact, adore using my thesaurus. I think it’s fun and informative. It’s just one of those things that must be used correctly in order to be effective (use a dictionary). Make sure you’re replacing your word with the right one, and ensure you’re not picking the fancy words just to sound smarter. Most of the time the words won’t fit, and your sentence will just sound ridiculous.
So, my verdict? A thesaurus demands respect, but it can be your best friend … when used correctly.

Happy writing!


2 thoughts on “The Thesaurus: Friend or Foe?

  1. Do you have/have you read Bill Bryson’s Troublesome Words?
    It is an amazing reference, what I appreciate most is not just the clarification or context (with examples) he provides but often he will suggest another less cumbersome or appropriate way of phrasing (or avoiding) that may have not occurred to you. Invaluable for an editor (or revising your own drafts).



    Liked by 1 person

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