“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”
I’m sure many of you have heard this quote. It’s well known, and for a reason.
When you find yourself searching for words in the thesaurus during your writing, it usually means you’re thinking more about impressing people with grandiloquent language than thinking about articulating your story, narrative, or poem using the tools you already have. This is invariably a poor choice, because not only will the words you find alter the tone of your writing, but they might not even mean what you think they do.
A thesaurus is not a dictionary. Reading a thesaurus entry won’t actually tell you what any words mean. It includes lists of similar words, but similar does not mean interchangeable. Similarly, a dictionary is no replacement for engaging with words in your reading and everyday conversation.
If words were people, think of a dictionary as collection of photos. Looking at pictures of someone doesn’t mean you know that person. It will certainly help you recognize them, should you ever see them in the future, but you have still never met them.
And if dictionaries are full of photos, then thesauruses are a bit like the “People You May Know” list on Facebook. You know a word that is similar to that word, but you’ve never met before, and until you look up their picture, all you really have is their name.
This is why it’s not recommended to use a thesaurus actively when you’re writing. Imagine someone inviting you to show up to some event they’re planning with all of their friends. You ask them why you’re invited, seeing as you’ve never met before. Then they tell you “Well, you’re sort of like my friend, and I didn’t want to invite him, so I thought you could take his place.”
Who would ever agree to it? They’re not the same word for a reason. They have their own definition, their own connotation, their own etymology, cultural context, and flavor. You cannot simply substitute one for the other. It’s rude.
With that said, thesauruses are also useful things. Both dictionaries and thesauruses are important references for any writer, and I believe oversimplifying the issue can hurt our relationship with these books.
By agreeing with the Stephen King quote, I’m certainly not advising young writers to ban thesauruses from their homes. I’m not telling anyone to avoid touching them for fear of catching the disease that causes overuse of barely-relevant four-syllable words.
So, I would like to present three exceptions to the rule. Here are three times when you can find the right word(s) in a thesaurus.
- When you’ve forgotten the word you need
Sometimes you have the perfect word for the meaning you’re trying to convey. You’ve heard it before, used it before, and it is exactly right for this specific line of poetry or this sentence.
But, you can’t remember what the darn thing is. What letter did it begin with?
At these times, a thesaurus can be a fantastic way to find the right word. If you can remember any of the wrong words, you can look those up in the thesaurus, and the right word might be somewhere on that list. You’ll recognize it when you see it, and then you can get right back to work.
- When you’d like to meet new words
If you’re looking to build your vocabulary, my first recommendation is always to just read more and pick up things naturally. But some of us are into word-of-the-day calendars and enjoy actively finding new words, and if this is the case for you, a thesaurus might be a good place to look.
You can meet new people through common friends. Words you’re already familiar with can lead you into relationships with new ones who you might grow to like just as much.
Say you’re pretty comfortable with the word “relationship” but you’d like to explore other words similar to it, and you end up with “liaison.” It’s a good word, but you can’t just invite it to the movies with the rest of your friends. Look up it’s definition, say it out loud a few times, and then leave it be. Don’t try to rush getting to know it, that’s off-putting.
The next time the word is used, you’ll remember it (and if you’re anything like me, whenever you learn a new word, you’ll suddenly see it everywhere, so it shouldn’t take too long).
When you’ve seen the word used in a variety of contexts, test the waters and start using it yourself. Never, ever as a substitute for “relationship,” but as its own word which you’ve now built a friendship with.
- When you’d like to know more about a word
If you find a word you don’t know while reading, you’ll probably just brush over it using some context clues. If it really catches your interest, you might look it up in a dictionary (or on Google, let’s be honest). One thing that’s helped me to learn more about a new word is to go one step further and see it in a thesaurus.
So you find the word “docile” and pause to get the dictionary. You see:
docile |ˈdäsəl| adjective
ready to accept control or instruction; submissive
But without stopping there, you search out a thesaurus. Or simply a website that substitutes one. Your list of words is going to vary wildly, and the more sources you look at, the more you’ll learn about the connotation and associations people might have with the word.
docile | adjective
compliant, obedient, pliant, dutiful, submissive, deferential, unassertive, cooperative, amenable, accommodating, biddable, malleable.
ANTONYMS disobedient, willful.
docile | adjective
tame, gentle, meek, well-behaved, agreeable, childlike, resigned
ANTONYMS wild, unruly
Remember that none of these words mean exactly “docile.” However, reading through lists of words that are associated with the word you’re learning can help you to get a little glimpse of what else comes to mind when people think of it. This is a great way to pick up on connotation and the tone with which the word works best.
So don’t race to the thesaurus to find a better word whenever you feel insecure about your writing. But, don’t make a bonfire out of your old thesauruses either.
A thesaurus is a tool, neither good nor evil. But it can be very useful.