Using a Thesaurus

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.


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