The Thesaurus is Your Friend—Except When It Isn’t by Cade Hagen

Post date: Oct 3, 2016 9:31:24 PM

Evoke, the principal perseverance of inscription is to converse philosophies, so I desire unblemished verdicts that society can cognize.


That sentence once made sense. It was clear and easy to read. It could have existed in an academic essay without a professor writing those three horrible letters to it: AWK (awkward). I’ve seen those letters on my own papers as an undergraduate, and I’ve written those letters on my students’ papers as an instructor. Somewhere in the process, our papers went wrong. Our sentences got awkward and confusing. That sentence at the beginning turned completely insane. How?

The thesaurus.

I remember the day I first came out to my ever-pragmatic family as a writer—not a civil engineer, like my dad, or a real-estate agent, like my mom, or something that, you know, makes money. No, I was going to put words into sentences into paragraphs into pages into chapters into books and hope someone out there was crazy enough to pay me to do it. And my sister, not the most encouraging of sorts, said, “Yeah, I think I could be a writer. You just have to use a thesaurus and throw in some fancy words.” Even at the time, it felt wrong. It felt like something was awry in her assessment, and I wanted to argue, but I wasn’t sure if that was just the little brother in me responding to my big sister’s flippancy. So I said nothing. I went to college, I majored in English, and I wrote my first few papers with Microsoft Word’s trusty thesaurus. And those sentences sucked.

Now, let me back up. This is not an outright indictment on thesauruses. I use them all the time in my writing, and I frequently pull out the desk copies at the Writing Center during consultations. We just have to use them the right way, and the trick lies in always remembering that words are more than their synonyms and basic definitions. Words have connotations.

Consider just two of the synonyms for the word boss: leader and controller. Leader typically conjures a positive image in a reader’s mind, whereas controller might conjure a negative image.

“Martin Luther King Jr. was known as a leader.”

“Your boyfriend is such a controller.”

Now switch those. If we call MLK Jr. a controller, our audience might think we’re implying that he manipulated something or perhaps that he was domineering. If we refer to a boyfriend as a leader, we’re complimenting him. Now try boss in either of those blanks. Things get weird pretty quickly.

The trouble with a thesaurus typically arrives when we find fancy words we’ve never encountered and plug them in to try to seem smart or academic. Here’s my personal rule of thumb: I never use the thesaurus to learn a new word; I only use it to remember a word I know is tucked somewhere away in my brain. That’s not to say you should never learn new words with the thesaurus. But always look up your new word in the dictionary and see it used in multiple sentences so that you know you’re using it correctly.

Remember, the primary purpose of writing is to communicate ideas, so I prefer clear sentences that people can understand.

(That’s the pre-thesaurus version of the opening sentence. See what I mean?)