The Thesaurus: Your Composition Companion
Carly Johnson, Consultant
A thesaurus always struck me as nothing more than a large, impressive book to place on your shelf and never open…until I turned in my first paper in English Composition 101 my Freshman year of college. My work was riddled with comments written in bold, red pen that stated things like: “repetitive,” “word choice?” and “is this what you meant to say here?” As I examined my paper more closely, I began to realize that my professor was absolutely correct, I was being repetitive—in fact, in the span of four pages, I typed the word “said” roughly fifteen times. In addition, I used the adjectives “nice” and “very” to describe any and all nouns within my paper. “What other words could I have used other than ‘said,’ ‘nice,’ and ‘very’?” I thought to myself. Then, I glanced over at the book I had ignored for so long: the thesaurus.
Many clients come to the writing center with comments from their instructors that convey many of the same messages I mentioned above. Students often become discouraged after reading these critiques, but I’ll let you in on a secret- no one, no matter how talented of a writer they are, knows exactly the right word to use 100% of the time—honestly, probably not even 50% of the time. I urge every writer to use the thesaurus as part of their editing process, and I encourage them to begin by asking themselves questions such as, “Have I used this adjective already?” or “Does this word convey my tone in the most effective way?” The thesaurus provides an opportunity for a writer to put their best vocabulary forward, and create the most polished final draft possible.
The only negative aspect of using a thesaurus is the sheer number of options it provides for you. I’ve seen students fall into the trap of selecting a word they are not familiar with in an effort to give their paper more variety. If you select a word from the thesaurus that is unfamiliar to you, you run the risk of placing that word in an incorrect context within your sentence. Make sure that, when you use a thesaurus, you are familiar with both the meaning of the word and its connotation. If you are unfamiliar with the word, but desperately wish to use it because it just sounds too perfect, like the word ‘bombastic,’ make sure that the word matches the tone of the rest of your essay. For example, I think the word ‘bombastic’ sounds like it should describe someone who has a loud voice and a charismatic personality, but it actually has a negative connotation and is used to describe someone who is ‘overbearing’ or ‘pompous.’ This is essential to know, especially if I am handing a paper into my professor where one of my sentences states, “I found my professor to be exceptionally bombastic.”
Using a thesaurus is a great way to strengthen your vocabulary, and take your writing to the next level. You don’t even have to open a large, impressive book anymore, either; you can simply right-click on a word within a word processing document and select the “synonyms” option, and within an instant a whole new world of distinct, delightful, and distinguished diction is available at your fingertips.
If, after reading this blog post, you still believe that a thesaurus is nothing but a large book that should never be opened, refer to Layne’s post regarding voice. Her advice regarding the thesaurus is especially useful for all the visual learners out there. However, if you are more inclined to listen to advice form non-writing center consultants, refer to my cool hand-drawn friend, The Saurus-
Next time you are swimming in a sea of ‘said’s, remember that the thesaurus, whether you wish to view it as a helpful tool or a dinosaur with a superior vocabulary, is an excellent composition companion.