Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Beware the Wily Thesaurus

Mr. Stoneman recently posted about how too much thesaurus can be bad for your writing. He makes a valid point, and one which I'd not thought to specify.

I've often advocated thesaurus usage on this blog. I believe that they nudge your brain into recalling or learning just the right word for what you are trying to express.

I have neglected 'til now, however, to point out that new words should always be cross-referenced in a dictionary before you use them. While you may love the sound of a word listed as a synonym in the thesaurus, it may not mean quite what you think.

As an example, I looked up the verb “advocate” from two paragraphs ago in a thesaurus, specifically at Thesaurus.com. I found recommend, urge, and advise. Those three words work well for my original sentence. Vindicate also appeared as a synonym, and starts the meaning slide.

If I click on vindicate on the site, I find synonyms like absolve, confute, exculpate, and rationalize. These are terrific words, but none of them convey the idea that I like thesauri and believe that they can help you write more clearly. In fact, they give the opposite impression—that the tool has a negative impact for which it needs to be excused or forgiven.

Learn new words, certainly. A strong vocabulary gives you tools to build cleaner and more precise sentences. But remember that approximate meanings won't suffice. Just because the word looks like a screwdriver doesn't mean it won't strip out the meaning of your writing.