The Danger of the Thesaurus

There’s a forensic element to editing. Sometimes I’ll come across a word that technically works in a sentence, but has an imperfect tone or imprecise meaning. (For example: After the mentoring program, participants find themselves entangled in lifelong friendships.) But I don’t like to make changes willy-nilly, so I investigate why the writer has used the word. Sometimes—after considering the piece as a whole, alternative meanings of the word, and writer’s voice and rhythm—I conclude that the odd word works.

But it’s more often that the word just doesn’t belong in the sentence. (A proposed fix: involved is more neutral and less distracting than entangled.) And it’s my educated guess that the misuse of thesauruses is a common culprit. A thesaurus can be an invaluable resource for a writer looking for the perfect word. Sometimes one synonym fits much better than another. But writers get into trouble when they use the resource recklessly. Thesauruses can lead to a wrong word, or one that’s technically correct but doesn’t fit a piece’s overall tone.

Just because two words appear together in a thesaurus entry doesn’t automatically make them interchangeable. A careful writer will ask: Is the alternative word well known enough? (Sometimes it’s an alternative for a reason—it isn’t used as much.) Does it mesh with the voice of the piece? (Don’t insert a highfalutin word in common language, and vice versa.) And, Will it bring an unintended image to the reader’s mind? (Consider: shirt and blouse, hit and slap, joke and gag.)

Word choice is a delicate matter, and one wrong decision can send a sentence spiraling into unintended meaning. A thesaurus can be a helpful tool when searching for the right word, but it can just as easily suggest the wrong one.

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Comments
4 Responses to “The Danger of the Thesaurus”
  1. Pam Rider says:

    Excuse me. The first priority in selecting a word from a thesaurus is: Does this word *mean* the same thing as the word begun with.

  2. cbgaines says:

    You’re right, Pam. Thanks for using a single sentence to get to the core of what I was trying to say with four paragraphs.

  3. joy says:

    I started to comment on how relevant this entry is to something I’m working on, but I’m struggling to find the right words. 🙂

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