Remember the elementary school days when our teachers introduced us to those trusty reference books that would guide us through our writing? These were the friends we would come to rely on for the rest of our lives, the books containing so many of the answers we would need to survive our school years. The dictionary told us what those long words we’d never seen before meant. The atlas helped us find those faraway places we’d heard about in Geography class. There were encyclopedias and almanacs full of facts that came in handy for homework assignments. And then there was that book that gave us lists of synonyms and antonyms for the words we wanted to use in our writing: the thesaurus.

This last book is an interesting case, though, because unlike the others, it has the same potential to hinder as it does to help. Yes, the thesaurus is a top go-to resource for many writers, especially beginners looking to enhance their work. However, something our teachers may have neglected to tell us is that the guide comes with unwritten instructions: use knowledgeably.

Trustworthy/reliable friend/ally?

"Hooray yay for synonyms!"

“Hooray yay for synonyms!”
(Screenshot from RubberNinja‘s Gameoverse videos)

When we were first introduced to the thesaurus, we were taught that it’s a great resource for helping to expand our vocabulary, and that’s true. I can’t even count how many new words I’ve learned just by looking up synonyms for ones I already knew. Every time I work on my stories, I have my dictionary/thesaurus widget handy to help me find replacements for words that would otherwise be repeated too soon in the narrative. It even helps me remember advanced vocabulary that I may have forgotten (which happens more often than I’d normally care to admit).

A good use of a thesaurus is as a reverse dictionary. You know how sometimes you know exactly what you mean to say, but you just can’t find the right word for it? Well, all you have to do is look up more common words for the definition you want and see what options come up. True, this method may not be as effective as using an actual reverse dictionary, which has full definitions and cross referencing, but it’s still a convenient alternative to find simpler examples, especially for writers who don’t have access to a more complete guide.

So yes, writers, the thesaurus is your friend. It will save you from plain and repetitive writing, and can teach you a thing or two (or ten) in the vocabulary department. But be warned, because placing too much trust in this guide can have negative consequences as well…

Or dubious/suspicious enemy/foe?

So how could this dependable friend of ours also be a hazard to our writing? Instead of launching into a dissertation about the dangers of overusing a thesaurus, allow me to illustrate the point instead with an example from the popular TV series Friends. In this episode, Joey wants to write a letter of recommendation for Monica and Chandler, who are planning to adopt. When he mentions that he wants to make it sound smart, Ross suggests he use a thesaurus to replace plain words with advanced ones. Unfortunately, the results are less than satisfactory…

Joey: Hey, finished my recommendation. (hands a letter to Chandler and Monica) Here. And I think you’ll be very, very happy.

[…]

Chandler: I don’t, uh, understand.

Joey: Some of the words a little too sophisticated for ya?

Monica: It doesn’t make any sense.

Joey: Of course it does! It’s smart! I used a the-saurus!

Chandler: On every word?

Joey: Yep.

Monica: All right, what was this sentence originally?

Joey: Oh, “They are warm, nice people with big hearts”.

Chandler: And that became “They are humid, prepossessing Homo sapiens with full-sized aortic pumps”?

Joey: Yeah, yeah. And hey, I really mean it, dude.

Friends (Season 10, Episode 5 – The One Where Rachel’s Sister Babysits)

As you can see, Joey’s overuse of a thesaurus causes him to turn out a ridiculous stream of long words that have nothing to do with what he wants to say. While Ross’s advice may have been good in theory, he probably should have warned Joey not to go straight for the “smartest sounding” word every single time. The problem wasn’t just that his letter would come out overly “purple“, but that there was an important tip he neglected to keep in mind when choosing synonyms: context is key.

A notable example of a misused synonym in the above dialogue is “humid”. As we all know, while “warm” and “humid” have comparable definitions when it comes to describing the weather, only “warm” is also applicable to people. A similar problem happens with the use of Homo sapiens, which is only good for scientific writing and doesn’t really work as an alternative for “people”. With all these big words so out of place, it’s no wonder Monica and Chandler couldn’t understand anything Joey had written!

Thesaurus DinosaurBut there’s another problem with placing too much trust in a thesaurus. Although the purpose of the guide is to index words with similar definitions, there’s a catch: the “synonyms” that come up don’t always have the exact same meaning. This means you should always be aware of the full definition of a word before you try to pass it off as a replacement for a more common one, advice that many writers fail to take into account.

One particularly embarrassing example of this practice from my own experience is when I used the word “fortuitous” incorrectly in a story. My thesaurus listed it as a synonym for “random”, but what I didn’t realize until after publishing the piece was that while “random” is a neutral word, “fortuitous” usually has a positive connotation (as in “good fortune”), which was not the feeling I intended to convey. Fortunately, no one ever called me out on it, but it was still embarrassing to know the mistake was out there for anyone to see. So to be safe, make sure you look up the definition of a synonym before you use it in your writing. You’ll be glad you did.

A thesaurus can be a friend or an enemy, depending on how much faith a writer is willing to invest in it. While its uses are mostly beneficial, it’s up to you to make sure that this trusted ally doesn’t turn on you and muddle up the meaning behind your words. It’s OK to trust your thesaurus to help you enhance the vocabulary in your writing. Just try not to use it in excess!

Monica: Hey, Joey, I don’t think we can use this.

Joey: Why not?

Monica: Well, because you signed it “Baby Kangaroo Tribbiani”.

What about you? Do you make good use of your thesaurus? Has it been more of a help or a hazard to your writing?

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