Why you shouldn’t use a thesaurus at every chance you get

A person writing with a cup in the background

There should be a new rule instituted in the literary world: don’t learn your vocabulary from a thesaurus. It almost always turns out badly.

Just ask any English teacher; they probably have several examples of cringe-worthy phrases hurriedly pulled out of a thesaurus during a test. Sure, the definition was mostly there, but the connotations, nuance, and maybe even the type of word was wrong.

And, as a result, the sentence was ruined.

You’ve probably seen this condition before. You know, when a writer uses a word they learnt out of a thesaurus in an attempt to impress their readers, be they teachers, managers, Facebook friends, or the local writers’ club.

And here’s some advice: that’s probably not the best way to write. Because, honestly, the conclusion is abominable. (And that’s an example of why you shouldn’t learn words from a thesaurus. It’s also an exaggeration, but since you actually need the real sentence, I meant to say, the results are awful. Now doesn’t that sound better?)

I’m not going to belabour this point too far. You’ve probably already met someone who’s a little too fond of their thesaurus. Of course, now, we come to two questions: where should you actually learn new words, and where does a thesaurus actually come into play?

This might not sound like a very attractive solution for many of us who don’t have much time, but let’s be honest here: the best way to learn new words, and learn them correctly, is to read them in context. Like from a book. Or an article. After all, repeated exposure to a word will allow one to learn not only the basic definition, but its many nuances and connotations. And of course, its two most important aspects: where it should be used, and where it shouldn’t. Because we can sure butcher language, but we certainly can’t carve it.

Now to the next question: where should you use a thesaurus?

Well, I would say a thesaurus works best at helping people recall words. Because honestly, while I probably know ten words related to bad, I can’t recite them all off the top of my head. But, with a thesaurus, I can certainly find them all. You’ve probably experienced it too, you know, when there’s a word that’s just on the tip of your tongue but you just can’t seem to remember it. A thesaurus is very useful in this case.

And here’s another word of advice to anyone trying to struggle through writing assignments, or maybe just writing in general: you can’t trick your readers. People will be able to tell if you’re just plucking words from a thesaurus. Good writing, after all, isn’t just about fancy words. Good writing is about weaving words together in such a way that it’s beautiful. And a word out of place is like a stain on a canvas. Sure, the composition of the stain might be significant: who knows, it might have gold dust in it, or maybe it’s Leonardo da Vinci’s spit, but guess what? A stain is a still a stain, no matter what it’s made of. In the same way, a “good” word, if placed badly, becomes, by definition, a bad word.

My main point, really, is this: don’t lose the forest for the trees, and certainly, please don’t lose your message for fancy words.

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