1. aimi_aiko
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    aimi_aiko Contributing Member

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    Thesaurus help - To Use or Not to Use

    Discussion in 'Word Mechanics' started by aimi_aiko, Jul 3, 2011.

    I've noticed several threads on here that had either suggested the use of a thesaurus or talked about using one in order to find a specific "smart" sounding word or help to replace a simple or "common word".

    So that made me decide to post this thread, instead of respond to each of these threads seperately using the same advice.

    IMO and based on personal experience, I would refrain on using a thesaurus for two reasons:
    -to sound smart, or to replace a commonly used word
    -to simply fill in the blank (titles, stuck on words, etc)

    Using a thesaurus to sound smart or replacing a commonly used word is a big "no-no" for me. Leaning up against using a word that you aren't familiar with will be noticed and pointed out by the reader (or reviewer). It is commonly done that finding a word that "sounds good" or seems to sound smart will only be used once throughout the writing. A reader/reviewer wll DEFINITELY be able to tell that you have dug into the "thesaurus hole". If the reader sees that a unique word had been used just once will be pointed out and brought up. But, if that reader/reviewer sees that the word had shown up several times, then they know that the writer knows what he/she is talking about and will not be pointed out.

    I know this from personal experience, in the past, my best friend was a thesaurus. I always dug inside of the "thesaurus hole" all the time and my writing teacher caught what I was doing and pointed it out to me. She said that there is NO NEED to sound smart. She could tell that I had used the thesaurus without even seeing the book in my hands. She could only tell by reading, which you, as a writer, shall keep in mind about your readers and reviewers. She had broken me from doing so and made me use the words I was already familiar with and could pull out of my head.

    I understand the use of a thesaurus will be commonly used if you are stuck on a word. Yes, if you are familiar with the word you're stuck on and it is just on the tip of you tongue, but cannot get it out, a thesaurus is okay to use. But if you're stuck on a word, that is NOT on the tip of your tongue, and your problem is the fact that you worded your sentence in a way that may need a certain word placed there, will only tell you:

    WORD THE SENTENCE DIFFERENTLY AND CHANGE IT!!!

    Tweak the sentence several times until it sounds like YOU and not someone else's writing. Also, refrain from someone writing or correcting that sentence for you, because again, IT IS NOT YOU.


    Other opinions and views about this are welcomed, for I am interested in other's views and opinions. I'm not meaning for this to be looked upon as a debate, but looked upon as a VERY common issue among the writing industry. You may agree, or disagree, I accept either. I just thought I'd take this time to express my opinion and let all of you know that this has happened to me personally and please keep an open mind of what may happen.


    Thank you, happy writing, and have a most wonderful day! :)
     
  2. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Interesting observations. Some great points there.

    I would have jumped right on your teacher's bandwagon on the issue of using a thesaurus just to use 'smart words'. Curiously, I was once accused of using a thesaurus in connection with a paper I had written in college. I had not. Blessed with an exceptional education - and an equally exceptional vocabulary for which I bless my grandmother every day of my life, I used words that were readily at my disposal, words which I used in everyday conversation. (It would seem the adjunct professor had a more diminished vocabulary than I!)

    The point here being, everybody has a different level of vocabulary and understanding. It's a good thing to introduce people to a new, $10.00 word every now and then. But do not force feed multi-syllabic words into your writing if it is not natural to you to do so. They will, as you have noted, come off sounding stilted and stiff. And the finer nuances of meaning between two words listed under the same head word in a thesaurus can simply make you sound dumber and not smarter! Do, however, explore that thesaurus for your own benefit to expand your own vocabulary and allow you to take possession of these new words at your command. Once you do that, those words will become a part of your common patois and will feel natural to you when you do use them. The danger here, of course, is learning not to write over the heads of your target audience. Don't use a lot of non-mainstream language unless your character would do so. Keep it real.
     
  3. art
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    art Contributing Member Contributor

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    Best used as a memory aid.
    Which is to say it's probably advisable to not use a (supposed) synonym that you're not already familiar with.

    In a not dissimilar vein, it's very bad form to deploy a word that you don't know the meaning of in Scrabble...in my house anyway.
     
  4. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    my standard advice to mentees and new writers in general is, 'lock up your thesaurus till you don't need one!'
     
  5. Cogito
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    Cogito Former Mod, Retired Supporter Contributor

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    A thesaurus is a feral beast that often bites its owner. Handle with great care.

    Just because a word is deemed a synonym does not by any means suggest it is interchangeable with the other. A word from a thesaurus is a chance acquaintance, but a writer needs to know a word enough to trust it with his or her life and limb.
     
  6. thewordsmith
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    thewordsmith Contributing Member Contributor

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    Gosh, I wish I'd said that!
     
  7. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    Both these are QFT. Especially mammamaia's.

    As was said up above, if you want to use it as a memory aid, I'd deem that okay, like if you forget a word but remember that it's similar to something, look it up in a thesaurus. I do that every now and then. But I look at a thesaurus the same way as a rhyming dictionary. It's pre much just cheating.
     
  8. minstrel
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    minstrel Leader of the Insquirrelgency Staff Supporter Contributor

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    This isn't always true. Those of us who are old are sometimes forgetful, and we know words that we can't immediately summon to use. A thesaurus is sometimes useful to remind us of words we already know.

    I use a thesaurus about twice a year. When I do, it's almost always in order to correct a sentence's rhythm. I find I have a one-syllable word or a three-syllable word, but I really need a two-syllable word to make the sentence rhythm right. I look it up in the thesaurus. If the words offered up by the thesaurus don't fit - don't have the right sense or connotation, even if the right rhythm - I reject them and rephrase the sentence. Sometimes the whole paragraph. The thesaurus is no substitute for my own brain. It's a prompt, nothing more.
     
  9. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi,

    Personally I love my thesauruses? You just have to remember how to use them - as an aid not a crutch or a publicist.

    I mostly use mine for one of two reasons. First because I've written something and I'm not sure how the word works and want to find something better. And second because since I write a lot of fantasy, I need to get some specialist help in old (er) English and French etc. But I would never use a word I didn't understand and couldn't appreciate the nuances of.

    Cheers.
     
  10. ChickenFreak
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    ChickenFreak Contributing Member Contributor

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    I'm with the "memory aid" view of a thesaurus. I have never used and probably would never use a word from a thesaurus that I wasn't already intimately familiar with. The thesaurus is just there when I'm unable to think of a word with quite the flavor that I want in expressing a concept, but I'm sure that a word with that flavor exists. It's a "tip of my tongue" aid.
     
  11. Mallory
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    Mallory Mallegory. Contributor

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    Don't use a thesaurus just to sound smart - you'll only end up forcing lofty words that don't seem natural in the context and that'll put off the audience (I know whose posts you're referring to, lol).

    I only use a thesaurus when I want a specific word with a very specific connotation, not when I want to find something that's simply deemed higher-level vocab.
     
  12. Islander
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    Islander Contributing Member Contributor

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    Everything else being equal, I think a simpler word is better than a complicated one. Using simpler words means more people will be able to understand your writing.

    Many artists embrace the concept of minimalism - using the smallest available means to achieve the desired effect. I think minimalism is a good idea in writing too.
     
  13. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    You're like that friend that everyone has who is in an absolutely terrible relationship, but they don't see how terrible it is. At least <the bolded>.

    This reminds me of the saying that "often the word you mean is the one you think of first."
     
  14. NecessaryPain
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    NecessaryPain Member

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    There is a simple solution to this problem. I believe that using a Thesaurus is in fact, absolutely essential to a new writer. It's the best way to expand your vocabularly.

    If you use a word you are not truly familiar with, simply include it in your story, but highlight it in a different colour. Find ways to use it again further down the line, but not as much.

    There is no benefit to not using a Thesaurus, IMO. Use one, but use it cautiously.
     
  15. VM80
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    VM80 Contributing Member Contributor

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    ^^
    Although a thesaurus can be useful at times, I think it's too 'dry' as an extensive learning tool. I think it's much better to read good books, and then look up any words you come accross that you weren't familiar with.

    I learned much from looking up some 'weird' words or interesting phrases I found e.g. when I read Orwell as a kid. That led me into gaining other knowledge too, especially philosophical or historical facts.

    Still do that all the time.
     
  16. NecessaryPain
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    NecessaryPain Member

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    I think a combination of both is essential. I think we can all agree that over-reliance on the Thesaurus will result in poor writing.
     
  17. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    A British humourist once observed that the thesaurus tells you that "vision" and "sight" are synonyms, but a man will get very different reactions if he calls his wife "a vision" or "a sight".

    I can see that a thesaurus has possible value as a memory-jogger, but not much else.
     
  18. MatthewR
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    MatthewR Member

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    I'll straddle the line on this one as well:

    > In journalism my professor's preached the same line. "Never use a 25-cent word when a 5 cent word will do."
    Basically if you are writing for a base audience's understanding skip the thesaurus, it doesn't accomplish much.

    > In other writing, I use the thesaurus as a memory aid, but also to avoid repetition of words. There are not many that I "don't know how to use" but merely forget to use for favor of another word that I have since beaten to death in the previous paragraphs.

    Other times I like it for when the word I just used doesn't sound quite right. I know the meaning I'm going for but the prefect word is simply evading me. The thesaurus works perfectly there.

    One of my biggest complaints with JK Rowling's novels is that they were clearly written for 3rd graders and her stlye as an author was far too simplistic for my tastes. I feel to be taken seriously the occasional "big word" isn't something that should be avoided, rather --- embraced.
     
  19. cruciFICTION
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    cruciFICTION Contributing Member Contributor

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    I don't know how to convey that that is both hilarious, and also just a matter of connotation.

    Given the growing illiteracy and laziness (towards reading) of a majority of western children/teens, I don't think that it's such a large problem any more. I mean, I'd consider the entirety of the series to be perfect for someone aged 12 to 14 in writing style and such. It's appealing to young adults, and even a lot of adults, but the writing style and material is quite fine for young teenagers, so far as I'm concerned. I don't think that that's such a crime.
     
  20. digitig
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    digitig Contributing Member Contributor

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    I wish I could remember who wrote it. I think it was either Frank Muir or Dennis Norden.
    I agree; I don't think it's any sort of a crime to write in a way appropriate to one's target demographic, even if the result isn't ideal for somebody you are not writing for. You might as well condemn Finnegan's Wake or To The Lighthouse because most 11-year-olds would struggle with them.
     
  21. teacherayala
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    teacherayala Contributing Member

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    A thesaurus is a tool, and yet there are no clear guidelines on how to use it correctly. Only experience and sufficient skill with the English language can give you what you need in order to use it correctly.

    I work with students who are not native speakers of English, and it is VERY clear when they are using their dictionary and thesaurus in order to smooth over their lack of vocabulary knowledge. These are not tools that a person should use willy-nilly. Trust me, you need to trust your own voice as a writer or else your writer's block will shut you down and deny you creativity. If you're replacing your voice with that of a thesaurus, it's working against you, not for you.

    If you want to be a better writer, read more books. Learn vocabulary the organic way. This is one of the difficult things about being an English teacher--there's no shortcut that I can give you in this regard. We have vocabulary books at our school, but in actuality these vocabulary books just help you understand what you're reading and perhaps pass some standardized tests. They DON'T necessarily give you words that you can just pop in to replace your own voice with a more academic one.

    If you MUST use a thesaurus, use it in conjunction with a dictionary. Have some people read it a few times to see if it sounds awkward. Sometimes thesaurus synonyms are obsolete and sound like a dusty 18th century novel. If you don't know how to look for these pitfalls, you might fall into one.
     
  22. jwatson
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    jwatson Active Member

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    IMO definitely do NOT use a thesaurus. I learned the hard way because I used one. Every writer has their own unique voice with certain vocabulary. The moment the writer uses a word like gallant the reader will just stray off and think hmm that didn't feel right. Trust me, use YOUR vocabulary, it's good enough!
     
  23. mammamaia
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    mammamaia nit-picker-in-chief Contributor

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    ditto that!... if you're not on intimate terms with the word already, look it up and make sure it means what you think it means... because all the words in a thesaurus list do not have the same shade of meaning...
     
  24. Gothic Vampire Queen
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    Gothic Vampire Queen Member

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    Steph Meyers used this a lotttttt. The word Chagrin irks the shit out of me lol

    I really don't use this thesaurus shit because I will feel like I am........somehow cheating or something.

    If I get stuck on a word, or something, I try to explain it.

    Or work around it :)
     
  25. psychotick
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    psychotick Contributing Member Contributor

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    Hi Crucifiction,

    I'm very happy in my relationship! Roget and I are doing well.

    Cheers.
     

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