I love homonyms, homophones and other confusingly similar words: they’re mischievous and fun.
Always ready to trip the unwary writer, homonyms can magically turn sleepy writing into a wild, crazy party.
Take, for example, this newspaper headline: Police: Crack Found in Man’s Buttocks. (Don’t believe me? View article).
Synonyms, in contrast, are serious, sober, precise communicators.
Synonyms are words having the same or nearly the same meaning. For example, over, beyond and exceeding are synonyms of above.
Yawn. Synonyms, compared to homonyms, are party-poopers.
If you want to throw a wet towel on your writing, use a thesaurus. A thesaurus is a reference work where you can find synonyms and word suggestions.
Budding writers often get this advice: “Use a thesaurus to spice up your writing! When you create sentences, you can make them more interesting by using words that mean the same as the word you are speaking about. This allows you to add flavor to your writing.” (They’re talking about using synonyms, not cinnamon).
To this advice, I say, “Hogwash, bunk, drivel, and nonsense.”
Treat a thesaurus as you would a loaded gun. Handle with great care. Leave it alone unless you really know what you’re doing.
The casual use of this loaded reference work is prone to backfire. To sour more often than sweeten your writing.
When to use a thesaurus
You are empty on imagination. You keep using the same words over and over.
Each time my friend Bryan says literally, I literally want to tear my hair out. I’d literally be a millionaire if each time he used literally, he’d literally have to give me a nickel.
How do you know if you’re overusing a word? If a word (noun, verb, adverb, adjective) appears more than four or five times, unless the word is a key word in your title.
Use a thesaurus to avoid using the same word too repetitively, redundantly, recurrently, incessantly…
You are lazy & pretentious. You jack-up or mask what little you have to say with five-dollar words. A thesaurus is indispensable for desperate writers who decide if you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.
If you’re lured to utilize the thesaurus on the subsequent occasion you’re toiling on a treatise, mull over what just transpired to this stretch.
You are a nit-picker. Lawyers, for example, are painstaking in their choice of words. They sift through synonyms to find exactly the right word, either to clarify without ambiguity or to obfuscate the facts — whichever suits their purpose.
Each synonym has a slightly different meaning. The synonym you choose influences the way in which people interpret what you’ve written.
To a jury, there’s a subtle difference between “Did you see Lindsay Lohan take the necklace?” and “Did you see Lindsay Lohan steal the necklace.”
A hypernym is a synonym of a given word that is more generic — a little more general and less precise. The hypernym of steal is take, just as dog is the hypernym of collie.
The thesaurus lists hypernyms and subordinate words for your search word — the whole family, including distant relations.
You are looking for a jump-start. OK, this is when I turn to a thesaurus. The right word escapes me — it’s on the tip of my tongue but it won’t let go. I use the thesaurus (Shift+F7) in Word when I’m stuck.
Presented with a choice of related words, I think more about what I’m trying to say.
I grudgingly admit a thesaurus, on occasion, is a catalyst for clarity, for tying together the loose threads of an inchoate thought.
A thesaurus used creatively can yield jackpots. Years ago, an advertising copywriter searching for a catchy slogan for a new breakfast cereal, Rice Krispies, turned to a section in his edition of Roget’s Thesaurus headed “Sudden Violent Noise” and found “snap; crackle; pop.”
“Use the thesaurus to increase the effort and work of creating, not as a quick replacement of hard work.”
Trent Lorcher, Improve Writing by Improving Word Choice
You are a logophile, a lover of words. If you can get lost for hours in a dictionary, a thesaurus is just as entertaining. Knock yourself out.
If obscure English words fascinate you — words like horbgorbling, mautuolypea, or amomaxia — may I suggest Charles Harrington Elster’s There’s A Word for It! A Grandiloquent Guide to Life.
Alternatives to a thesaurus
Use a reverse look-up dictionary. I found the word logophile by going to OneLook.com and searching by definition – in this case, lover of words. I plug in what I want to say and, viola, there’s a word for it.
Be careful, though, in choosing an obscure word, even if it’s one you happen to know. Not everyone is a former Jeopardy champion and shares your limitless vocabulary. If that word is a head-scratcher for most of your readers, you’re not communicating. (Yeah, and I’m the one who used inchoate a few paragraphs ago.)
Today, the Word of the Day from dictionary.com is entelechy, meaning “a realization or actuality as opposed to a potentiality.”
I can’t imagine ever using entelechy, outside of Scrabble or a college class in philosophy. I want people to understand what I’m writing.
- Write in your own words. Be honest and authentic. Write just as if you were talking to a friend.
- Read a lot. Be omnivorous: Read a variety of sources. Read to learn new words. Read to learn original ways of expressing old ideas. Old magazines in the doctor’s office are a goldmine — you’re forced to read what you would never have given a second glance.
- Run your copy through the EditMinion. EditMinion, your personal copy editor, will check for overused words, weak words, clichés, adverbs, “said” replacements, passive voice, often misspelled words, and sentences ending with a preposition (as in, on, by, to, since). And EditMinion is free.
The best way to connect to your readers is to pick an interesting subject and don’t let your writing get in the way.
Best practices: Strangers in the Night
Be creative: Slam unrelated words together for fresh perspectives and memorable meanings.
It’s called Poetry.
Billy Collins, former US Poet Laureate, claims “there is no such thing as a synonym.” Billy says to avoid bland, uninspired writing, keep your thesaurus high on a shelf, out of reach.
It could be the name of a prehistoric beast
that roamed the Paleozoic earth, rising up
on its hind legs to show off its large vocabulary,
or some lover in a myth who is metamorphosed into a book.
It means treasury, but it is just a place
where words congregate with their relatives,
a big park where hundreds of family reunions
are always being held,
house, home, abode, dwelling, lodgings, and digs,
all sharing the same picnic basket and thermos;
hairy, hirsute, woolly, furry, fleecy, and shaggy
all running a sack race or throwing horseshoes,
inert, static, motionless, fixed and immobile
standing and kneeling in rows for a group photograph.
Here father is next to sire and brother close
to sibling, separated only by fine shades of meaning.
And every group has its odd cousin, the one
who traveled the farthest to be here:
astereognosis, polydipsia, or some eleven
syllable, unpronounceable substitute for the word tool.
Even their own relatives have to squint at their name tags.
I can see my own copy up on a high shelf.
I rarely open it, because I know there is no
such thing as a synonym and because I get nervous
around people who always assemble with their own kind,
forming clubs and nailing signs to closed front doors
while others huddle alone in the dark streets.
I would rather see words out on their own, away
from their families and the warehouse of Roget,
wandering the world where they sometimes fall
in love with a completely different word.
Surely, you have seen pairs of them standing forever
next to each other on the same line inside a poem,
a small chapel where weddings like these,
between perfect strangers, can take place.
Peter Mark Roget was about my age, in his early sixties, when he conceived the idea and seventy when he began work on his Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, classified and arranged so as to facilitate the expression of ideas and to assist in literary compilation.
First published in 1852, Roget’s Thesaurus has never been out of print. With each succeeding edition, the popularity of the work has increased.
Here’s a short bio of Dr. Roget.
Access Roget’s International Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases online at www.Bartleby.com