The Thesaurus: Use it but don’t abuse it

Using a thesaurus during the writing process can vastly improve the quality of a given text. It can help you vary the language you use to convey meaning, which ultimately improves the tone and flow of a work, and thus keeping your reader engaged. At the same time, however, when used too freely, a thesaurus can hinder your writing and actually serve to confuse your reader altogether.

I will admit, since my discovery of Word’s thesaurus tool, there is hardly a page written without me first right-clicking on some word and skimming through the thesaurus to ensure there is not a better choice. But this tool is something I always use with caution, as my main goal is to get my point across clearly and concisely—not to dazzle and/or complicate with obscure vocabulary. So while you should absolutely use a thesaurus to expand your vocabulary and improve your writing, keep the following two points in mind:

If you have never used the word in your speech, don’t use it in your writing. Often times an inexperienced writer or those with English as a second language may be tempted to use a thesaurus to replace common words with seemingly more intellectual ones. By doing that though, you can actually introduce errors into your writing. For example, here’s a straightforward sentence, untouched by thesaurus-dabbling:

She thought his name was Sam, but was mistaken.

A writer seeking to pad a simple sentence with a seemingly more weighty word might check the thesaurus and without giving it much thought, replace “mistaken” with “erroneous.” Instead of improving the sentence, the switch transforms it, making it confusing and awkward:

She thought his name was Sam, but was erroneous.

Repetitiveness warrants a look-up.

If you are writing about a subject where you have no choice but to use the same word over and over, use your thesaurus. It will likely have a few options you can use interchangeably throughout your text. But always be sure to check and make sure each word you use fits into the context of the sentence appropriately and that the word simply offers a different way to convey one meaning. For example:

Abiding by these rules will help you to write more varied sentences.

Abiding by these principles will help you to write more varied sentences.

Abiding by these guidelines will help you to write more varied sentences.

If you are just starting to explore writing or if English is not your native language, it is ultimately key to have others read your work, whether it is a peer or a professional. They can see patterns of word-use that it may be difficult to pick up on yourself. Once you get the hang of it, the thesaurus can be an invaluable tool for your writing.

–Abbey McDonald

Staff Editor



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