Use a thesaurus to write better

A thesaurus is a book or online source for finding synonyms and antonyms of words.  Here is how a thesaurus can improve your writing.

  • A thesaurus can suggest a variety of words to replace a generic or overused word. For example, the word “ran” can mean “raced,” “rushed” and “hurried.”
  • A thesaurus can offer a more precise word to replace a general word. For example, “ran” can mean “sprinted,” “loped” or “leaped.”
  • A thesaurus can offer nuances for words which have shades of meaning. For example, “to run” a business can mean “to regulate,” “to manage” or to “carry on.”
  • A thesaurus can jump start your brain with words you might not have considered. For example, “to run into debt” can mean “to incur” or “to acquire” debt.

But using a thesaurus can lead to problems.

  • Since not all synonyms for the same word are synonyms for each other, you must be sure of the meaning of a suggested word before you use it. Using a dictionary to find the precise meaning of a thesaurus-suggested word is a way to avoid this problem.
  • Some synonyms can sound pretentious when you want to write simply, or some synonyms can sound casual or even childlike when you want to write seriously. If you are writing fiction, a long word in the mouth of a child can sound ridiculous.  So can a slang word in the mouth of a courtroom attorney.
  • Some synonyms can sound unnatural for you, the writer. For example, I tend to write using short words of Anglo-Saxon origin, so long Latinate words sound wrong for my writing style.  Sometimes I look up a synonym and decide that the simple word I started out with is the best choice.

One more word on thesauruses.  (Or is it thesauri?)  Different kinds exist, ranging from a children’s thesaurus with pictures and limited words (meant for a beginning reader and writer) to an adult thesaurus (meant for fourth or fifth graders and older).

For serious writers, I recommend the Roget’s International Thesaurus.  This thesaurus is a two-part version, requiring you to look up a word (such as run) and then decide on the general meaning you are seeking.  When you find that meaning, you go to a different part of the book for a more detailed list of synonyms.  Compared to a one-step thesaurus, the results of this two-step thesaurus—precision, nuances and sheer number of synonyms—are superior but more time-consuming.

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