How to use a thesaurus

A thesaurus will bite your head off if you don’t use it properly.

Okay, maybe not your actual head, but it will eviscerate the sentences your head is trying to form, and it will chew threw their connotations.

That’s the main thing to keep in mind. Synonyms share definitions. They do not necessarily share connotations. And some of the “synonyms” the thesaurus mentions are tenuous.

Let’s look up “connotation” on thesaurus.com.

It defines connotation as “implication” and lists several synonyms: association, coloring, essence, hint, meaning, nuance, overtone, significance, suggestion, and undertone.

Dictionary.com’s first sample sentence for connotation reads, “Remind students that what they write needs to have a positive connotation.”

A couple of those synonyms would fit right in and leave you with basically the same sentence. Others come close, and some feel completely wrong. You can’t swap “connotation” for “nuance” here, for example.

“Remind students that what they write needs to have a positive subtle distinction.” Yeah, that’s not the same.

A thesaurus and dictionary should work together. They’re like the Wonder Twins. Individually, they’re insufferable teen sidekicks. When they join forces, they’re insufferable teen sidekicks with super-powers.

The thesaurus lumps together words with similar meanings. Then the dictionary will tell you the precise definitions so you can determine which word suits your sentence and its unique context.

And there you have it. The big secret behind the mean, nasty thesaurus. People who tell you to avoid thesauruses are probably just afraid a pretty word is going to leap out and seduce you and you won’t bother to check its full meaning.

They might also fear you’ll pepper your work with obscure $20 words that will send your readers constantly running to their dictionaries. Please don’t do that.

A thesaurus requires judgment. As long as you practice sound judgment, the thesaurus will help you diversify your word choices. Again, that’s help.

Don’t forget to do the heavy lifting yourself, or you’ll make the thesaurus angry.

And you wouldn’t like the thesaurus when it’s sullen.

2 thoughts on “How to use a thesaurus

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