Your thesaurus can be your best friend, or at least a great writing tool. (Is the plural form of thesaurus “thesauruses” or “thesauri”? Both acceptable.)
We all know the feeling. In the heat of composition, you reach for a word that seems to keep slipping through your fingers like a wet noodle. The amazing thesaurus can save you.
However, most writing professors and opinionated types will tell you to chuck the thesaurus or, worse, burn it. They hate thesauri. Why? Because many writers abuse the thesauri to self-destructive effect.
Today is National Grammar Day, and since we do a lot of writing here on the InMotion Hosting blog, we’ve got some tips on the proper way to use a thesaurus – and how not to use one. Grammar isn’t only about punctuation and sticky parts of speech but also knowing what words to use.
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How Does a Thesaurus Work?
In case you don’t know how a thesaurus works, it’s quite simple. Basically, a thesaurus is like a dictionary, but instead of giving you the definition of the words, it suggests synonyms (words that mean the same thing).
So if you’ve used the word “old” several times in a few paragraphs, and you want to provide some variety, you can look up “old” in your thesaurus and find some a various forms of decrepitude: senior, up in years, venerable, ancient, senescent, etc.
These suggestions can be of huge help, but they can also make your writing impenetrably bad.
Here’s a sentence that has been viciously abused by a thesaurus: “My senescent forebear dispatched a soupçon of erudition.”
I know, it’s disgusting. The author could have simply said, “My grandfather gave me some advice.”
Your Thesaurus Is Not a Word Dispensary
Don’t abuse your thesaurus by plucking words like berries from a vine.
If you use “linctus” instead of “cough syrup” because you want to sound smart, you’re just crazy.
Yet, in some instances “senectitude” may be an apt replacement for “elderliness.” While the former has a nice sound to it, and can easily be understood with the necessary context clues, the latter just grates on the ear.
The fact is, big words don’t make you sound smart. Rather, they have the opposite effect. If your writing is dense with jargon and complicated sentences, readers will think you’re less intelligent than you actually are.
Often, it is the everyday words that best convey your meaning to the reader. A good rule of thumb is to avoid using any words in your writing that you wouldn’t use in conversation.
Use The Thesaurus to Find the Wrong Word
This might sound counter-intuitive, but bear with me.
Finding the wrong word is often much more helpful in finding the right one than you might think.
For instance, you might have a great word like “mendacious,” which sounds great and wicked smart, but if you have to strain to shoehorn that word into your content, it may backfire on you:
“The mendacious cheetah stalks the gazelle.”
Sounds great! But mendacious is simply wrong. Mendacious sounds like it means vicious, but it actually means deceitful. Cheetahs can’t be deceitful because they don’t speak. And if they don’t speak they can’t tell lies.
Looking up mendacious in your thesaurus would have shown you it was the wrong word with these synonyms: untruthful, fictitious, fraudulent, etc. In this instance, the thesaurus has given you the gift of the wrong word, so you can go back to the drawing board and get the right one.
Your best bet would be hold off on “mendacious” for now and go with “vicious,” “predatory,” or something more descriptive of the cheetah.
Using a thesaurus can be helpful in many ways. While suggesting right words and wrong ones, the reference is helping you learn the intricacies of the language and craft better content. But, like any reference, it can be abused, so pay attention and choose your words carefully.
Thoughts on “National Grammar Day — How Not To Use a Thesaurus”