Exceptions to the Thesaurus Rule

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

-Stephen King

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.

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

Grandiloquent Language

There is a point in many people’s lives when they are faced with a text that is packed full of long or unfamiliar words. This often happens when reading very old literature or philosophical texts, but it might be an academic essay or a particularly difficult poem. Whenever it happens, it has a similar effect: the reader feels like an idiot.

These texts leave us struggling with understanding words in a way we haven’t since we first learned language as a child. Word by word, the line slows down, the shapes of letters becoming more apparent on the page, and we become painfully aware of how much mental energy it actually takes to read. There are no context clues because the surrounding words are as incomprehensible as the word we first paused on. Soon, even the grammatical structure of the line seems strange and wrong. There is a foreignness to the moment, as if we are completely lost in a parallel world. A small, perhaps irrational, panic spikes in the back of the brain— what if I don’t understand my own language? What if I can’t comprehend or communicate? Am I isolated from other people? 

It sounds extreme, but I believe that these moments truly tap into a special sort of fear, at least the first time they happen. Humans are social beings. We need companionship and interaction with each other. Our form of communication that we call ‘language’ is so important to us as a species that when we feel that our ability to use it is threatened, even just for a moment, somewhere a fear whispers that it will cost us our communities and loved ones.

There are a few responses to this feeling, and each has the power to forever shape someone’s writing.

1. “The Dictionary”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to you not trying hard enough, and dedicate your life to learning new words.

This is a pretty good reaction, because it has the potential to really expand your vocabulary. These are the sorts of people who actually own a physical dictionary, buy word-of-the-day calendars, or set themselves up with a screensaver that displays them definitions. They subscribe to facebook groups that post pictures of obscure words (which may or may not be real) and try to work some of these into conversation occasionally.

Most of the time, those who fall into this category don’t end up writing extremely difficult texts, but do tend to include a greater amount of challenging words in their work along with plenty of context so readers can learn them too. Many authors fall into this category, and you can recognize them as the ones who seem to teach you new words all the time as you read their work.

(Small warning: Occasionally those with “The Dictionary” reaction will get caught on a new word and try to work it into everything, so there is a minor risk of them structuring ideas around their words instead of the other way around. This happened to me after learning the words “disgruntled” and “indubitably” as a child, and I’m sure I became unbearably obnoxious for a while.)

2. “The Thesaurus” Decide that not understanding the text is due to you being spectacularly stupid and incapable, and dedicate your life to attempting to hide this from everyone else who must just be inherently smarter and perfectly able to navigate thick tangles of obscure words. 

This reaction is what makes English teachers pull their hair out and frustrates Stephen King.

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

These people will write papers and then open up a thesaurus and substitute every word possible with a synonym that’s more difficult to read (and often doesn’t even share the same meaning or connotation). These are the ones that change every “use” to “utilize” and “praise” to “approbation.” They will make their sentences as long as possible and are known for packing papers with enough fluff to fill a nursery of toy bears.

For some, it becomes a game. They feel that they’re expected to shove these words into their writing, and so they play along, feeling that they have outsmarted the system. You can see this sort of reaction from Calvin.

Image                                              (Calvin and Hobbes by Bill Watterson)

Their goal is no longer to communicate their ideas but to convince others that they have a command of grandiloquent language.

Unfortunately, it often convinces people of the opposite, because the goal of language is communication, and readers often can’t understand what in the world these writers are trying to say. This happens a lot in lower level essay writing courses, but I’m sure some go on writing this way forever. I imagine a dangerous loop could form where they feel stupid, use big words to feel smart, someone points out they used the words incorrectly, and then they feel stupid again.

“The Thesaurus” response is often caused by embarrassment or a secret lack of confidence, and is incredibly destructive. It’s one of those situations where fear leads directly to bad writing.

3. “The Hemingway”
Decide that not understanding the text is due to the writer of the text being incapable of expressing their ideas clearly and dedicating your life to proving that all of life’s complexities of thought, emotion, and experience can be expressed in plain vocabulary. 

This reaction leads to writing that is accessible to all sorts of readers. It doesn’t always mean that these writers don’t have a good vocabulary, but they usually believe that the simpler a sentence can be constructed, the better.

These people will look at essays with lines like, “The researcher discovered that female individuals have a greater tendency than their male counterparts to preface their statements with expressions which allow for additional possibilities or indicate a lack of commitment to their position” and correct it to “The researcher found that women are more likely to hedge their speech.”

They are likely to make the actual reading easy so that the reader’s focus can be on the complexity of the ideas explored. The reaction is named after the famous author because he is known for simple sentence structure and the use of accessible vocabulary. Plenty of other authors take this approach too, but Hemingway is famous for it.

The heart of this reaction is summed up in this exchange between Faulkner (who appears to have had a “Dictionary” reaction) and Hemingway:

“[Hemingway] had never been known to use a word that might send the reader to the dictionary”

“Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.”

Not everyone necessarily falls into one of the three categories, of course. Life is too complicated for that. For example, I believe it’s possible for a “Thesaurus” reaction to become a “Dictionary” or “Hemingway” response with a little reassurance.

Some texts are just plain difficult, and it doesn’t make anyone stupid for not understanding them immediately. People can have all sorts of creative ideas without also having a large vocabulary.

I think one of the best strategies to help make this shift with students is to encourage developing and exploring their ideas, using whatever vocabulary they currently have.

To anyone who is faced with feelings of doubt about your vocabulary while writing, my advice is to work with the tools you have. You can go looking for words as something fun to do when you aren’t writing, but during the actual writing process, try to explain your thoughts as best you can using the words with which you’re already comfortable. Reading more in between writing (even books that are just fun to read and would never be described as “challenging”) will probably build and round out your vocabulary on their own without you ever needing to memorize words from the dictionary.

Blending of multiple reactions is possible, too. I think that I myself am often “The Hemingway” in philosophy and “The Dictionary” in practice. While I believe that all ideas can be expressed simply, I am, after all, writing this blog about how much I love learning about words.



The Insider’s Vegan Dictionary*

*May contain traces of hyperbole. Manufactured in a facility that also processes humor.

I’m currently on Spring Break and home with my family. We’re all vegan which means that

  1. My veganism is less a young-adult rebellion thing and more a family cohesion thing.
  2. We are obligated to inform others of our vegan state under threat of Official Vegan Law. (Hence this blog post.)

Like any subculture, we risk some ridicule and misunderstandings from members of the dominant culture who don’t understand why we would stray from tradition. Sometimes we are even perceived as a threat to normalcy or “the way things are done” and people become a bit uncomfortable with our existence, which is unfortunate. Other times people are totally accepting, which is always wonderful.

Another part of being part of a subculture is that we have access to a whole bunch of words, phrases, and jokes that not all people in the dominant culture are hip to. So, because I’m into sharing my experiences with words, I’d like to give up all my super secret insider vocabulary to you.

Some of these are just based on my experience and are of my own creation, others have emerged through conversations in person and online with others in the veg*n community.

Without further ado, I present to you:


  • Avocados– Pure delicious.
  • Cannibal Loophole – Some definitions of veganism have to do with consent. For example, mother’s breast milk is entirely vegan because it is willingly given from mother to child. Because of this concept, it is hypothetically possible for cannibalism to be vegan assuming the human flesh in question is given for consumption with informed consent from its owner.
  • Defensive Omnivore – Someone who, upon hearing that someone near them is vegan (or even occasionally just the word vegan) launches into a string of cliches intended to ridicule vegans or simply catch them off guard. This can be anything from talking about how misery makes meat taste better to a discussion on how to best protect innocent plants.
  • Defensive Omnivore Bingo– A bingo chart (created by Brian VanderVeen) that vegans keep with them and play when in a conversation with a Defensive Omnivore. If the Defensive Omnivore says enough cliches in a single conversation to win, you can turn in your Bingo sheet to a super secret vegan organization and earn a lifetime supply of free hummus.
  • 4129322738_d4e5fafd54_o Friend’s Dad Reaction – The sort of reaction someone has to discovering your veganism that launches them into teasing, joke making, or general proclamations of just how amazing steak and bacon are.
  • Friend’s Mom Reaction – The sort of reaction someone has to discovering your veganism that prompts them to ask if it’s okay that they’ve eaten meat near you or if there’s anything they could bring next time. Occasionally this reaction includes genuine concern that you might not get anything to eat.
  • Grandma-Vegan (adjective) – A food that is thoughtfully chosen or a prepared meal thoughtfully made to be accommodating for vegan guests, but contains some animal product. This is not out of malice, but usually out of an mistaken impression that chicken broth or butter is vegan.
  • Grandma-Vegan Dilemma – The dilemma when a vegan must decide whether to eat or turn down Grandma Vegan food, and whether or not to inform the person who chose or made the food that it’s not quite vegan.
  • Guest Dilemma –  The dilemma when a vegan is invited somewhere that food may be served and must decide whether to take their chances and potentially go hungry, to eat beforehand and potentially face the horrible guilt of realizing the host went out of their way to make something vegan, or to bring food with you just in case.
  • Host Dilemma – The dilemma when a vegan is a host and must decide whether cooking something that doesn’t even vaguely resemble what most omnivores are used to eating or to make something with vegan alternatives to animal products that will probably taste weird to them.
  • Ingredients Lists – What vegans spend most of their lives reading.
  • Level 5 Vegan – One who doesn’t eat anything that casts a shadow. This term was derived from an episode of the Simpsons, but I like to imagine it indicates a much larger dietary spectrum divided into levels.

    (-6 ) Murderer cannibals, or zombies
    (-5 ) People who eat primates and kick puppies
    (-4 ) Paleo dieters
    (-3 ) People who love eating meat but also like animals
    (-2 ) Meatless Monday practicers or people who don’t eat red meats
    (-1 ) Pescatarians
    ( 0 ) Flexitarians
    ( 1 ) Vegetarians
    ( 2 ) Vegans
    ( 3 ) Fruititarians
    ( 4 ) Fruititarians who only eat fruit that fell due to natural causes
    ( 5 ) Those who don’t eat anything that casts a shadow
    ( 6 ) Consumes only power and light: achieves autotrophic god-like state.

  • Meathalla – A hypothetical island where there is no source of food except meat, sometimes in the form of a living animal and other times pre-prepared. This island is the subject of the most common philosophical question brought up by inquiring omnivores, often phrased as such: “If you were stuck on an island with nothing to eat but meat, would you eat it?”
    Synonyms: Meat Island, Fleshy Shores.
  •  Nutritional Yeast – The secret spice of vegans that can be added to anything, and non-official sign that a person has now fully embraced veganism.
    Slang synoymn: “Nooch”
  • PETA – An organization secretly funded by the meat industry to make vegans look bad.
  •  Puns – The apparent favorite naming convention for vegan alternatives. (Ex: Egg McMuffin becomes Egg Trick Muffin. Jimmy Dean becomes Gimme Lean.)
  • Scramble – Vegan word for essentially anything that can be thrown into a pan and eaten for breakfast.
  •  Sexy Flexitarian – Those who prefer to eat vegan but are flexible and occasionally eat all sorts of food. They are the perfect hypothetical dates because whether you’re vegan or omnivore, you know they’ll be really into whatever you’re planning to serve.
  • Soy – A food that is used a lot in vegan cooking, especially in the States. (Contrary to the opinions of the subsection of Defensive Omnivores who are also homophobic, soy will not turn you gay.)
  • Veg*n – A word used that can be inclusive of vegetarians and vegans, usually to denote the larger community.
  • Veg*n Skill Trees – Essentially, your decisions help you level up your dietary identity in various directions based on your priorities.
    If you put all your points into ethics, you might end up a fruititarian.
    Put them all into health, you might end up a raw foodist vegetarian.
    Put them into environmentalism you might become a vegan localvore.
    Put them into cultural change, you might become a radical vegan activist.
    Put them into carbs and delicious, you might become a junk food veg*n.

    (I personally divided my points between all of those, so my skill tree is well rounded, but not particularly impressive in any area.)

  • Vegan Zombie Diet – Vegan zombies haven’t been observed yet, but, like regular zombies, their behavior has been the subject of discussion a lot lately.  Some assume that they would pursue grains instead of brains. Others theorize they may go after fungus, humans who are already dead, or just starve.
  •  Vitamin B12 – Nutritional requirement. If you feel compelled to ask a vegan where they get their protein, just substitute “Vitamin B12” for “protein” in the sentence and the vegan in question is guaranteed to respect you 20% more.

If you have any questions or other words to add, feel free to comment! I’ll be eating cheeseless pizza that is essentially a pile of vegetables on an edible dough-plate.