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Thread: Thesaurus...friend or foe?

  1. #1
    practical experience, FTW RobertEvert's Avatar
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    Thesaurus...friend or foe?

    Do you ever find that writers insert a word that just doesn't seem to fit their writing style, almost as if they just randomly picked a word from a thesaurus?

    I just read somebody who used the word "disseminate"...which is a wonderful word. It just didn't seem to fit the tone of the story. The MC waved his hand to "disseminate" the smoke from his campfire. It ruined an otherwise wonderful scene.

  2. #2
    Dorothy A. Winsor dawinsor's Avatar
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    Ow. That's painful. I do not think that word means what the writer thinks it means.

    I occasionally use the thesaurus because my first word choice is too abstract and academic. I'm looking for more concrete synonyms.

  3. #3
    Smooth Operator TheKoB's Avatar
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    In general you may always run in danger of becoming too dependent on a Thesaurus and just use exotic words for the sake of it.
    Sometimes it's just better to listen to your feelings and try to figure out if it "sounds right".

  4. #4
    empty-nester! shadowwalker's Avatar
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    A thesaurus is a great tool when you know the right word but can't think of it, or when you know precisely what you want to say but don't know the word for it. This second part also requires a good dictionary, and an understanding that synonyms don't really mean "exactly the same".
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    Retired Illuminatus dangerousbill's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bergen View Post
    I just read somebody who used the word "disseminate"...which is a wonderful word. It just didn't seem to fit the tone of the story. The MC waved his hand to "disseminate" the smoke from his campfire. It ruined an otherwise wonderful scene.
    A thesaurus is just a tool like a hammer. If you don't learn how to use a hammer properly, your work ends up full of dents and chips.

    Now that I'm getting older, my word recall is slowing down. I'll always get the right word, but it may take five minutes or more before my brain says, "Ding! The word you want is 'nitrogenous'". A thesaurus helps me to find the word while my brain's file system is still screwing around down in the sub-basement.
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    Moon Safari owlish's Avatar
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    I love thesauruses for their intended use--that is, when my brain slips and I can't recall the word I want to use. At all costs I try to avoid looking up "average" words to replace with fancy ones. More often than not, those words (while perhaps awesome words!) will look inauthentic when compared to the rest of the text.

    In addition, the thesaurus can definitely deceive; I've looked up words with very specific meanings, and the "synonyms" included are so far away from having a synonymous meaning it's a bit off-putting at times. I'm sure that's what happened with your "disseminate" example.

    Pro-tip: if one is going to replace an ordinary word with a "synonym" as defined in the thesaurus, look up that word as well for its actual definition.


  7. #7
    practical experience, FTW RobertEvert's Avatar
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    I think you all are really hitting the point of knowing the words you use. I need to work on this.

    I also need to work on using the proper word for the tone and pace I'm trying to set.
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    Let's see what's on special today.. Bufty's Avatar
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    If it's simply to find 'writery' words you wouldn't otherwise use -foe.
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  9. #9
    Tell it like it Is Susan Littlefield's Avatar
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    I don't use a thesaurus, I use the first word that comes into my mind. Anytime I have used a thesaurus, the words don't sound as natural as the first word that came into my head.
    Last edited by Susan Littlefield; 11-19-2012 at 03:43 AM.
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  10. #10
    Scared and loving it... Cappy1's Avatar
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    Too often people reach for the thesaurus because they think using long words makes them a writer.

  11. #11
    The colors! THE COLORS! leahzero's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bergen View Post
    The MC waved his hand to "disseminate" the smoke from his campfire.
    That sounds like Atlanta Nights-caliber prose.
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    here and there again fadeaccompli's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by shadowwalker View Post
    A thesaurus is a great tool when you know the right word but can't think of it, or when you know precisely what you want to say but don't know the word for it. This second part also requires a good dictionary, and an understanding that synonyms don't really mean "exactly the same".
    This, exactly.

    When you know a word but can't remember it immediately, or want to contemplate which exact nuance is best out of a host of synonyms? Thesaurus plus dictionary. But one should never, ever use the thesaurus to select a word otherwise unknown, even with the help of a dictionary; it's a sure route to picking the wrong one.

    That said, if you find an awesome word in the thesaurus, but don't already know it well enough to just be going "Oh, right, that's the one I wanted" on seeing it... Google for it. Read a few paragraphs here and there of other people using it. Try Google Books, especially, to see it used in published works, not just odd places online. Then, once you have a better feel for it, you can decide if it's worth using or not.

  13. #13
    New Fish; Learning About Thick Skin EthanCullen's Avatar
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    I'll admit I use the thesaurus a lot, but that's because I often find myself staring at my monitor asking, "Now what was that word?" If I feel I should use a particularly fancy word in place of a simpler word, I'll ALWAYS look up the definition if I'm not familiar with its meaning.
    Last edited by EthanCullen; 11-18-2012 at 11:43 PM. Reason: for words that shouldn't be there...
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  14. #14
    practical experience, FTW Benedetto Youssef's Avatar
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    I use it, not to find complex words but just words of similar meanings that fit the flow of the sentence better!

  15. #15
    Feed my eyes WriterInChains's Avatar
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    I use it more to window-shop than as a writing aid.
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  16. #16
    QWERTY!!! IAMWRITER's Avatar
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    Bit of both really. If you use it every now and then to replace a word thats been repeated quite a bit fine. But if you are using it just for the sake of using one and finding fancy words then it can be your foe.

  17. #17
    Benefactor Member Roxxsmom's Avatar
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    Quote Originally Posted by Bergen View Post
    Do you ever find that writers insert a word that just doesn't seem to fit their writing style, almost as if they just randomly picked a word from a thesaurus?

    I just read somebody who used the word "disseminate"...which is a wonderful word. It just didn't seem to fit the tone of the story. The MC waved his hand to "disseminate" the smoke from his campfire. It ruined an otherwise wonderful scene.
    Well it really stands out here, since the connotation doesn't seem quite right (unless he's trying to spread the smoke around as if he were sowing seeds).

    But this illustrates one peril of thesaurus use: connotation versus denotation.

    And yes, there is the issue of character voice. Since I tend to write in limited third, when I choose to use a fancy word, even in narrative, I have to think if it's something my pov character would understand, let alone think in that context.

    Still, I think there's a use for them. It can certainly be handy if you're trying to avoid repetition of the same word multiple times in one scene, for instance. However, many words just lack acceptable alternatives.
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  18. #18
    all hail zombie babies! CrastersBabies's Avatar
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    I use it all the time, but I only use the potential replacement word if I understand the definition and how to use it AND if it fits in with style, voice and such.

    My 10-year-old girl character would say, "I'm hungry and need food now."

    She would not say, "My appetite has increased and greatly desire sustenance."

    So, yeah . . .

    People who say, "never ever ever" (in Taylor Swift voice) use that Thesaurus..." well, I just don't agree with that. Use wisely.
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  19. #19
    Maybe I should see someone . . . Tigerlilly79's Avatar
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    I rarely use it, been when I do it's usually because I've used a word a few times and want another alternative. It's definitely a friend if used properly.
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  20. #20
    Learning to tie my shoelaces sargeorge's Avatar
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    I used to use the thesaurus so much I might as well have swallowed one.
    That was during by University days when it brightened my day to add a strange words to my Zoology essays, just to make them less boring.

    I have been obsessed and come out the other side hating them. I now think they are evil (a tad dramatic, I know).

    No really, I have nothing against them for other people, they are just not for me. I could easily spend hours looking for words only to use the one I started with.

    I much prefer a dictionary.
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  21. #21
    50% Dark, 50% Snark Nick Rolynd's Avatar
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    I probably use a Thesaurus at least two or three times every writing session; thing is, as others have explained, it's supposed to be used for (and I use it to) find the right word, not a "fancier" one. Usually, I'll know four or five synonyms for a word, but I can't actively recall them all off the top of my head, so I crack open the Thesaurus to get the full list and locate the best one.

    But yeah, sometimes it's painfully obvious that a writer just chewed up a Thesaurus and spit it back out on the page. That's not how a Thesaurus should be used. If you don't know the word, don't use it, and don't ever use it until you've learned its exact definition (because a Thesaurus gives you similar words, not ones with identical definitions) and some proper example sentences.
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  22. #22
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    If I ever think about using a thesaurus, it'll be time for a trip to the doctor. It means dementia has set in.

  23. #23
    Believer of magic maplesyruped's Avatar
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    I only ever use the thesaurus if I have the word on the tip of my tongue, but it's just not coming to me and I need a little bit of help. Or if I find that a word I have used just isn't right. Otherwise, if the writing is flowing and no word is making a sentence awkward, I leave it as it is.
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  24. #24
    Neophyte Writer Ergodic Mage's Avatar
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    Thesaurus? That site with all of those big words? My two brain cells have problems comprehending that much. I prefer to restructure a sentence and/or paragraph to get the effect across in a different manner.
    One of these days I might even succeed, ha.
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  25. #25
    Oooh look at the pretty pony! goldhorse's Avatar
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    I use it, but usually because I have used the same word a whole lot and I need something different. Not better or fancier, just different.

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