How Not To Use A Thesaurus

Martin Amis uses a thesaurus. The British novelist and critic is known as kind of a snob, and the thesaurus is known as a dangerous tool abused by amateur writers trying to sound smart, but as you’ve probably guessed, Amis uses his thesaurus very differently than the average university student.

In the Big Think video above (via Open Culture), he describes a better way to use a thesaurus.

The danger of a thesaurus, as a million articles about writing style have warned, is that you might replace an appropriate word with an inappropriate one. You might replace the perfectly good word “writer” with the pretentious “scribe,” or replace “stop” with “cease,” or some other kind of term-paper bullshit.

You might do this because you want to sound smarter, because you didn’t know that simpler words are usually better. Or you might do it because you’re afraid of using the same word several times in one piece of work.

That second habit—where you replace each instance of a word with a different synonym, to avoid saying the same word several times—is called “elegant variation,” but not as a compliment. It’s commonly found in bad journalism, blog posts, and overwritten Yelp reviews by people who think they’re going to write a book one day. Amis specifically warns against it. (Just use the same word several times; readers won’t notice the repetition as much as you do. Or use pronouns.)

Instead, Amis uses a thesaurus to match the style and rhythm of his words. He might find his current word too long or short for the sentence it’s in. Or he might want to avoid an awkward rhyme or alliteration. He points to Vladimir Nabokov, who changed the English title of his novel Invitation to an Execution to Invitation to a Beheading. Say both out loud and you’ll hear the improvement.

He also double-checks his word use by looking up words in the dictionary—not necessarily to check their definitions, but to check their etymology. For example, he says, the lapid in dilapidated comes from the Latin word for stone, so while he might refer to a dilapidated house, he wouldn’t refer to a dilapidated hedge.

You don’t have to be as careful as Amis with your word choice. But if you truly want to write better, pay more attention to the rhythm of your words, and study their usage and etymology. Your thesaurus and dictionary are one right-click away—use them well.


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