How to Properly Use a Thesaurus

Recently, I have seen several examples where the author of a story apparently used a thesaurus or other reference to replace a word in a sentence, but in doing so ruined the meaning and sense of the line. I understand why writers want to use this reference – they’ve been told not to use simple verbs in sentences, particularly the “be” verbs. They also shouldn’t use common descriptors like “nice” or “good.” In our modern society of instant messaging, tweets, and social media posts, a broad and exceptional vocabulary is no longer prized nor taught. Many writers are left with few words at their immediate disposal.

I applaud anyone who puts forth the effort to strengthen their vocabulary and improve the quality of their writing, but I also feel distraught when their attempts fail.

By following the guidelines I’ve laid out below, you can use the thesaurus successfully and make your writing more appealing to discerning readers.

  • Use sparingly. It is not a magical solution to make your writing sound smarter. The only thing capable of such a feat is practice. When you hear or see a new word, practice using it in various sentences until it becomes a natural extension of your writing ability.
  • Trust your vocabulary and your instincts. Your first word is probably your best word. Starting out in writing, it’s normal to feel inadequate and even just plain stupid when comparing yourself to well-known writers. We all want to improve upon ourselves, but it’s important to do so carefully. Choosing the wrong word will diminish your credibility as a writer.
  • Use it as a learning tool. When I was much younger, I increased my vocabulary by committing to using any particular descriptive word only one time per page. This forced me to use references to learn and practice new words, broadening my knowledge of language. I still prefer to avoid using the same descriptive word too many times in the same work.
  • Not all synonyms are equal. Don’t just pick any word from the synonym list to replace your original word. You will end up with a nonsensical statement that readers will look at and instantly frown upon.
  • Confirm the meaning of the word to ensure it is a fit replacement. Read the definition of the new word. Then, test the word by reading the sentence aloud with the replacement word. Also consider the overall style of your work, the age level, and the vocabulary of the characters.

As an example, “have” has many synonyms, most of which do not possess the same meaning as each other, such as “obtain” and “accept.”Thesarus Pic-croppedLet’s try a few sentences with possible replacements from this list.

  1. “I have a bicycle.” – I have it now, in the present.
  2. “I obtain a bicycle.” – I am going to get a bicycle in the future.
  3. “I accept a bicycle.” – Thanks for the gift.
  4. “I carry a bicycle.” – That looks heavy.
  5. “I possess a bicycle.” – I have it now, in the present (just like my original sentence).

In short: 1. Learn a new word. 2. Practice it. 3. Use it wisely.

Good luck on your future writings!




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