Nicola Vincent-Abnett

Nicola Vincent-Abnett
"Savant" for Solaris, Wild's End, Further Associates of Sherlock Holms, more Wild's End

Wednesday 2 May 2012

The blog in which I urge you to ditch that Thesaurus

A thesaurus can no more do our job for us than can a grammar or spelling checker.
For those of you who happily rely on your grammar and spelling checker, and see no reason not to, you may cease reading. Move along; there’s nothing to see here.
Time was, and I know this, because I was there... Time was, reading, writing and arithmetic ruled our infant lives, and thank heavens. 
The best way to learn new words and their meanings is to read them in context.
More than once, readers have remarked on the husband’s use of what some people refer to as ‘long words’, by which they generally mean obscure words or words that they have not seen before. They talk about these words as if they are somehow evil, as if we are all better off ignoring their existence. Piffle I say, loudly and often. First of all, the husband always allows clarity through context, so that, in fact, new words seldom have to be looked up in a dictionary. Second of all, there are times, and they are many and various, when only one word, the right word, will do.
If you do not know the right word, if you do not understand the nuances of word choices then it’s time you went back to school, or travelled back in time any number of decades and got a pre-digital, pre-internet... God-damn-it pre-computer-age education.
The English language is complex and fascinating, and one of the things it has in abundance is synonyms. There is a simple reason for this, to do with the number of language roots that influence English; they are more several than in other languages. You might think this gives us more choice when what it actually does is give us a greater responsibility to make the right choices.
The point is: no two words are precisely synonymous with one another. Every word has its own precise meaning as we come to understand it through time and usage. Take the word ‘thin’ for example. I might use thin, but I might choose ‘slender’ for elegance, ‘skinny’ for a judgement call about vanity, ‘scrawny’ as social commentary, ‘lean’ for athleticism, ‘emaciated’ as a technical reference, and so on. It’s a simple enough example, but you take my point. I plucked, out of thin air, as it were, half a dozen synonyms. If I had to resort to a thesaurus to find these words, I’d then have to check each one against a dictionary before choosing the most appropriate. It’s a longwinded way of learning the language, and most people, and I include writers, can’t be bothered to do it.
In that case, ditch the thesaurus.
I’ve seen too many examples on the page of writers having clearly chosen a word from a thesaurus to avoid repetition, and having chosen very badly.
Read more books; read more books of a better quality, and take a Latin class, and if you buy that thesaurus make damned sure it sits on the shelf next to a good dictionary, and never, and I cannot stress this firmly enough... Never ever take the former out without the latter.


  1. I agree, but can I add another suggestion? The nuances of a word, all its history and associations, come out of its use. Read, read and read some more. See these words in their natural environment, see them doing the job of whole sentences in poetry, listen to them used in speech. Words come with baggage, that is missing in both thesaurus and dictionary.

  2. Well put. Every word has connotations beyond its basic meaning which color the manner in how it can be used. Pulling from a thesaurus without being familiar with the word can spoil it for the reader. But, after having agonized over pages for more time than I'd like to admit, I often think it would be nice to have a reverse dictionary in which I can give the definition I'm looking for and find the exact word to fit.

  3. I'ver always thought that when I'm professionally writing I'll get myself a very big thesaurus. Not because I'm bad at English, I'm extremely well-read for my age, but because English is such a big language remembering the right word can sometimes be very difficult, that's why I want a thesaurus, in case I just think; You know what, I need a word to describe this, but I don't know it. Think of a synonym, then find the right word. Or if it's an obscure word you haven't heard before, then look it up. But tbh, there aren't many words I come across that I don't know or can't guess the meaning of.