A thesaurus is a fruitful tool when you use it befittingly. If you fathom what you’re performing, a thesaurus patronizes you find the merited word for your specific ballgame. But if you ply synonyms without kenning their shadinesses of gist, you will look really speechless. You need to apprehend each word you utilise, or else people will jape and jeer at your calligraphy.
God that was painful.
If you want to stretch outside your usual vocabulary and use a more colourful word, but you’re worried it’ll read like the paragraph above, try double-checking your word choice with the web app Ludwig.
Ludwig is a kind of dictionary that helps with translations and definitions, but it’s especially good at giving real-life examples of where a word or phrase is used. Its examples are pulled from a set of 22 high-profile (and generally high-quality) sources including the New York Times, the Independent, Forbes, and ScienceDirect.
Enter a word or phrase to get examples of its use. You can also search a phrase with a missing word, like search the * for clues, to see what might fit into a sentence.
The results for a given word or phrase will usually come from just three or four publications. Each result has a source name, which links to the original article or page so you can read the quote in context. You don’t get results from random web pages, as you would with a Google search.
Now, these sources might “misuse” a phrase or word. You need to pay attention to which publication each quote comes from, and have some outside knowledge of which are most careful about their word use. The New Yorker, for example, is extremely careful about usage, and you can’t go wrong imitating it. Forbes and the Independent are much looser, and the New York Times is somewhere in between, depending on the piece.
For example, look at how different publications treat the phrase beg the question. This awkward phrase, translated too literally from Latin to English centuries ago, originally meant to make a circular argument. (For example, “evaporating sweat lowers your body temperature, because evaporation is a cooling process.”) But nothing about the phrase beg the question obviously points to that meaning.
And eventually it gained its second, more informal meaning: to raise a question. Kind of redundant, but beg makes you sound more like you read books. So even respectable writers use this new meaning often, so often that many dictionaries include it as a second, “informal” meaning. Now the phrase means let’s start a fight over linguistic prescriptivism. Point is, Ludwig gives you a decent idea of how widely the literate world has accepted a phrase (or a particular meaning of that phrase).
Given the very limited corpus that Ludwig searches, you might also want to check your phrase on Google Books and Google Scholar. If you want to see how a phrase is used in everyday life, try Twitter, but know that people say pretty dumb things on Twitter.
Language is alive and evolving, and technically all words and meanings are flexible, and many perfectly fine words and phrases were once considered “incorrect.” But words are for communicating, and using a non-standard one will make a lot of people think you’re dumb. You don’t want to get caught writing “all intensive purposes” or “supposably” or “I had free reign” in a term paper or a cover letter.
With a free account, you can run eight Ludwig searches a day and get 15 results each. If you become a heavy-duty user, you’ll have to pay $8/month or $68/year for the unlimited version, which includes source filtering, more results, and no ads. Or open the site in incognito, run an ad blocker, and squeeze out a few more free searches.