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Monday, November 12, 2012

Thesaurus Pros and Cons

When I’m writing fiction, my favorite book is the thesaurus. For years I had a well-thumbed version of Roget’s II; now I keep thesaurus.com open in the background as I edit.

If by some chance you’ve never used a thesaurus and are not familiar with the term, it’s a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms. So let's say I randomly input the word crackle; the thesaurus gives me back synonyms like crimple, crinkle, snap, sparkle, rustle, rattle, and pop.

It’s a fantastic way to find just the right word, and I use it a lot to come up with strong verbs for the verb-adverb combinations I tend to write into first drafts (e.g. walked quickly becomes strode).

But there are dangers to the thesaurus.When I was younger, I’d open my Roget’s and find a bunch of obscure words I’d never heard of next to the ones I recognized. And if I liked the way one sounded, I’d throw it into the manuscript. Which sometimes made my writing read like…well, a vocabulary test. For example, one of the synonyms I didn’t list for crackle was crepitate.

Say what?

I just had to use extirpation in my manuscript... Bad idea.
I looked it up (dictionary.com is a companion site to thesaurus.com—a good reference to keep handy to make sure you understand the nuances of a synonym), and it literally means “to make a crackling sound.” So it's a perfect synonym, right?

Probably not. Darned if I’ve ever heard that word before. Which typically means that people just don’t talk like that.

Writing the paper crackled as I balled it up works fine; writing the paper crepitated as I balled it up makes you sound like you’re getting paid to use 50c words.

Beware the 50c words! (Because you're not getting paid to use them.)

I’m kind of a thesaurus snob in that I strongly prefer Roget’s—now in a 21st-century edition—which is what thesaurus.com usually references first. Merriam-Webster’s, which was for a long time the most common online and software thesaurus, has just never done it for me. You may, of course, feel differently.

If you don’t already have a favorite, a fun thesaurus that’s worth trying is Thinkmap’s Visual Thesaurus. It’s $20 a year with a free 14-day money-back-guarantee trial. You can also try it for free without a subscription.

You type in a word and the word appears with moving synonyms (nouns are in red, adjectives are in yellow, and verbs are in green) attached to it. If you click on one of those words, new synonyms and antonyms bounce and float into place. It even has a “word suggestions” column for people who needs words that sound like or are spelled similarly to the original word.

Do you use a thesaurus? Which one is your favorite resource? Have you noticed any pitfalls I didn't mention?

Carolyn Kaufman, PsyD's book, THE WRITER'S GUIDE TO PSYCHOLOGY: How to Write Accurately About Psychological Disorders, Clinical Treatment, and Human Behavior helps writers avoid common misconceptions and inaccuracies and "get the psych right" in their stories. You can learn more about The Writer's Guide to Psychology, check out Dr. K's blog on Psychology Today, or follow her on Facebook


docstar said...

I only use a thesaurus when I know what I'm trying to convey but can't think of the right word. I do not use it just to find a different word to use. It's not only about 50 cent words - it's about knowing the nuances behind the word.

Unknown said...

If you use MS Word, you can also highlight the word, right click on your mouse and go down to synonyms and it'll give you an available list of alternate words to use for that word. Also, it doesn't cost you a thing.

Unknown said...


This site is a great thesaurus resource.

aff said...

You might also like powerthesaurus.org - very interesting concept!