As a writer, I’m constantly putting words down, either on paper or on a computer screen. Usually in some sort of order, as in a sentence or a meaningful phrase, though not always. Occasionally, I’ll come to a stopping point where I’m stumped for the proper word. I can’t keep every word in the English language in my head, so I have to look one up. Most of the time I’ll have a word in mind that isn’t exactly what I’m trying to say, or I’ll have a concept that I want to express with just the right word. But I’m at a loss to come up with the word that says what I want. In this situation, I’ll consult a thesaurus.
I’ve had a number of thesauruses in my time, but the one I use almost exclusively now is Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus, published by Delta Books, a division of Bantam Dell, which in turn is a division of Random House. The latest publication date I have is 2005. This thesaurus is filled with synonyms of all types and sizes, and I usually can find the word I’m looking for. I don’t consult the thesaurus in the word-processing program I use because it doesn’t have enough synonyms.
Regardless of what thesaurus you’re using, the process of finding the proper word is the same. You have a word that doesn’t fit the concept you want, or you have a blank space that needs filling. In either case, you have to have an idea of what you want to say. Sometimes I’ll come up with a phrase that expresses the idea, but a phrase won’t work and I need a single word. I almost always have a word in mind that’s similar to what I want, so that’s the word I look up in the thesaurus. But then I’m confronted with many other words that are similar in meaning, but just not right–just not what I want. At this point, the most important facet of using a thesaurus comes into play. Before a thesaurus is any good at all, you have to know two things: the concept you want to express in the sentence you’re writing, and the meaning of every word in that thesaurus. That’s vitally important: be aware of the meaning of each word you consider. Don’t just drop in a word that looks good; you must know each slight variation and difference in the synonyms presented to you. Different words that have similar meanings will have slight nuances within those meanings that can make a big difference in the meaning of the sentence. Dictionaries are good for looking up those slight variations. (That’s why you should have a good dictionary as well as a good thesaurus.) The proper use of a thesaurus can make the difference between a writer who doesn’t know his English and one who does.