Tuesday, August 30, 2011

In Defense of the Thesaurus

The thesaurus is one of those things that can either be beneficial, or it can be the key to your undoing. General consensus deems that the thesaurus is a troublemaker for professional and amateur writers alike. Stephen King has even gone on record to say, "Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule."* While I adore him and his writing, maybe I'm just too naive or too inexperienced to agree completely. Another source of my sudden need to defend the thesaurus was in a book I am currently reading, Robert's Rules of Writing. Even though I'm enjoying the book and there are some wonderful little snippets of advice, I can't help but slightly disagree. For example, "Thesaurus words are words you would never use on your own; the fact you had to resort to the thesaurus just to find them proves it." (Masello, 293-98) I don't disagree with this statement completely, but I do have to come to the thesaurus' aid.

I have a confession: I use the thesaurus. Often. All the time, really. My desktop dictionary/thesaurus is open almost the entire time I write or am on my computer at all. Why? Because I don't have a vast vocabulary, nor do I remember the exact meaning of every word I (or anyone else) have ever used. This doesn't mean I lack skill, or that I'm an amateur, or worse: just and idiot. It means that I have a zillion other things going on in my head at one time and I can't always remember things, even when I really do use them on a daily basis.

Let's do a quick scenario. I'm looking for a different word for a colour. It's red, but not the typical cadmium red, or tomato red. Crimson's not quite right either. Also, who wants to use those couple of words over and over again in their writing? Not me. I'm thinking of a dark reddish colour with maybe a hint of purple, but I can't think of the word. I know there's a word for it, but for some reason I can't remember what it's called. It's a word I use plenty in my vocabulary, and, hell, I can even tell you exactly how to mix the paint that will make that exact colour. But for some reason, the word escapes me. Should I put "He wrapped a dark, reddish-purple colored shawl over her shoulders and sat down next to her." and use so many words? Or should I take the two seconds out of my "organic flow" of writing to type in 'red', click enter in my dictionary/thesaurus program, and find BURGUNDY sitting in there among the other different types of red? Heh, which do you think I picked?

This happens to me plenty of times with other things too. Completely common words that I can't think of during my focused writing time. Sometimes I'll just go back and edit, but my brain doesn't work that way. If I'm writing about an imp and it's fleeing from someone, shouldn't I use a better word than 'run'? Maybe that word doesn't reflect how he's actually moving. So let's work through some words I could use: dart, bolt. Okay, sure, those are pretty good. It implies quick movement, which works for an imp. Scamper or scurry would be better, though. Sometimes I can't remember the meanings of words, so I will check the thesaurus and the dictionary to be sure the words mean exactly what I'm visualizing in my head. I don't want to use the word 'run' when I meant the word 'scamper'. Run is NOT the right word. Scamper is. No matter what any other author tries to say. Should I leave it as run because I had to use the thesaurus to remind me of the word scamper?

There are so many different and commonly used words for many things that sometimes, to make the writing clearer and less wordy, it would be better to use one of those words. Maybe I'm not the brightest crayon in the box, or maybe I'm just not as awesome as those who hate on the thesaurus. And I can understand. Some people... even extremely famous authors *cough* abuse the thesaurus with inane synonyms that people haven't used since who knows when. Funny, though, that this same author uses a few other words so many times in the same page that it becomes ridiculous. At any rate, when used well and not mistreated, the thesaurus can be a useful tool. And I'll continue to use it without shame.

[READER RESPONSE] How do you feel about the thesaurus? Do you ever use it? Why or why not?

*Quote found on http://www.quotationspage.com/quotes/Stephen_King

1 comment:

  1. Amen! You read my thoughts. I, too, use the Thesaurus and Dictionary every day. The brain goes numb and I just can't think of the word, or I know there is a more succinct word that I'm not thinking of.