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Put That Thesaurus Down!

December 10, 2011

No, really. Put it down, and no one gets hurt.

“But I want this to be descriptive! I want a better word!”

Yes, yes, I know. You like an extensive vocabulary. So do I. I really, really like words.

And you’re right, words are magical. It’s why we respect them. Even worship them (Too far? Too far.) When the thesaurus is used well, it’s an invaluable tool for writers of any genre.

But when misused,  you get sentences like: “The pervasiveness of the aroma intermingled with a zaftig and fervent devotion” and no one knows what you’re talking about – nor do they want to take time to translate it. (All right, yes – that’s just gibberish. But you know what I mean). You need to actually write coherent English that the majority of the population can understand. And they understand a lot, but if you make them work too hard they’ll hit the back button on the browser or walk right back out of the bookshop.

You never need to use a complicated word where a simple one will do fine. Why? Because we use simple words. Every day. It doesn’t make them bad, it makes them comprehensible. This is a Good Thing. Uncommon words are uncommon because, except when put in the right place in the right sentence, they’re not actually that useful.

“But I’ve said the word ‘red’ like three hundred times this paragraph!”

I’m actually a little more lenient on this one because I do it a lot. BUT, the solution to this kind of problem is not necessarily throwing ‘vermillion’, ‘cerise’ and ‘damask’ around (all of which are lovely words in their own right). Firstly, if you have that many adjectives floating about – especially ones that mean the same thing – then you have a problem, but that’s a story for another day, because this happens with nouns and verbs too. If you find that you’re having to repeat the same word over and over, then your sentences probably need reworking instead of throwing the thesaurus at it. Check out your grammar first, and try to see why everything has to be so damn red and why you keep telling us this. Find ways to get around it instead of mask it.

I had this problem once with the word ‘slime’. My whole chapter was full of slime and goo and ooze and gunk, until my classmates said ‘We GET it! There’s lots of slime! Just stop mentioning it, for Christ’s sake.’ A quick rework and I found that about 90% of those could be deleted with no harm done to the story.

‘Huh. I’ve never seen this word before. But hey, it looks cool. I’ll just…’

No. Stop that. Now.

Do not slap a word in if you do not know what it means. Ever. At the very least, check it in a dictionary (a real one, Wikipedia* doesn’t count). But even then, if you’ve never heard of it, chances are most of us haven’t either.

Most important (because I hear this a lot) it does not make you smarter. ‘Smart’ people use plain English to communicate. Because it gets a point across and is easy to understand. And they’re smart.

Note: This is not the same as ‘I think I should probably know this word, but I’m unsure on the exact meaning’. This is exact RIGHT time to use a dictionary or thesaurus. What we’re talking about it is words you’ve never seen before in your life that you pick because they’re listed as synonyms and, hey, it looked cool.

Another problem is that throwing any fancy-sounding word in can have the opposite effect; also known as, That Word Does Not Mean What You Think It Means.

And the thing is, the further down the line you go; the less similar words become: Formal -> Ritualistic ->Observance -> Compliance -> Obedience , and all of a sudden we have two words that don’t really mean the same thing at all.

Do I think you shouldn’t learn new words? No, of course that’s not what I’m saying – expanding our vocabulary is good, and it’s one of the reasons why we should all (especially children) read so much. I love it when old-fashioned words make a comeback (usually in a strange new disguise as dodgy slang, but words are words). There’s nothing wrong with throwing the odd ‘loquaciousness’ and ‘perspicacity’ into conversation.

Similarly, I don’t mean to slight the poor, mistreated thesaurus, heroically providing us with the answer when we’re tearing our hair out shouting WHAT IS THE WORD, WHAT IS THE WORD, I HAD IT, WHAT AM I TRYING TO SAY OH GOD. It’s a useful tool, and you should have one beside your dictionary at your desk.

But use it sparingly, when you really need it. Please. Think of the poor thesauruses…thesauri…I don’t even.**

LINKS that discuss this more (this week is all TVTropes.Org)

You Keep Using That Word

Sesquipedalian Loquaciousness

Delusions of Eloquence


** Huh, turns out both are correct. Things you never knew…

4 Comments leave one →
  1. December 11, 2011 12:05 am

    I, too, find the prolific distribution of arcane and aberrant lexis existent in modern fabrication works most exasperating. However, there is an element of glee to be extracted from spouting tautological insults such as “peristeronic columbiform”.

  2. December 11, 2011 6:06 pm

    You have such a brilliant way of writing blogs. I wish I could come across as half as quirky and nice as you do. A great way of explaining thesaurus abuse. You can come across as wonderfully loquacious, and I don’t mean in a garrulous way. The good loquacious. If that works. I don’t even either. ;D



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