Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

Thesaurus Lopper

Trimming Words Is More Dangerous Than You Might Imagine

Yesterday, I snapped the handle on this lovely old set of loppers by cranking too hard on a branch bigger than what the tool was intended for. That’s not my first inappropriate use of tools—once I tried to boot-bust a board angled on some steps and it snapped up and sliced my face like a cold cut. A colorful reminder that genius doesn’t run in the Bentley handyperson’s gene. But mangling the loppers made me think of twisting tools from their intended use, and being the metaphorical sort, the thesaurus came to mind.

Relying on a thesaurus to write an article or story can be like using a bazooka to clean a bit of dust from your cabinets—instead of blowing away the dust, you’ve blown out the wall. Here’s the trouble: You may have crafted a sentence with perfectly good words, but then writer’s anxiety sets in. Couldn’t this sentence have more kick? Doesn’t it need an alligator belt and lizard-skin shoes to really speak its piece? How can anyone sense the weight of my words if a few of them aren’t blacksmith’s anvils?

When a Crossbow Becomes a Crash of Syllables
Thus, the unwary writer might fall into a quagmire along these lines: She writes a fine sentence for an article on crossbow collecting:

The shrewd crossbow collector will seek multiple opinions before buying a 4th-century Greek crossbow.

But then she fidgets and thinks, Hmm, couldn’t I give that sentence a little more oomph by substituting a few synonyms? After all, I did say “crossbow” twice.

The transmogrified results go like this:

The perspicacious crossbow accumulator will solicit manifold perspectives before procuring an antiquarian armament.

Add Seltzer, Not a Grenade
Beautiful, eh? Now, inject a little embalming fluid in that sentence, and you can consign it to its rightful grave. But that’s just a brute force example of how to kill a sentence with good intentions (and bad language). For me, the occasional, judicious use of the thesaurus is not only useful, but fun. Using one can be like adding some seltzer to a piece, not a grenade. Take this sentence:

When she heard the rustle in the grass, she jumped to the other side of the path.

Now there’s nothing wrong with that sentence, but what if it’s not what you, the writer, is hearing in that grass, the thing that makes you and the character jump? What if “rustle” doesn’t have the sense of threat or menace that you seek, but another word doesn’t surface? Then you can go to the candy store of the thesaurus, because when you want a Kit Kat, and you only have a Snickers, you won’t be satisfied.

Checking out my electronic candy store (the thesaurus that accompanies the Mac OS dictionary), I see swish, whoosh, swoosh, whisper, sigh. Leaning my ear to that secret in the grass, I sense that “whisper” is the winner. Now you might think that’s adding artificial flavors to your writing, but not when you use the flavoring in this way: you are using the promptings of the synonym suggestions to season the sentence how you most accurately sense it. And like I said, this isn’t something you’d do to torture all of your sentences. Just the ones where you know there’s a better word, the word that makes your sentence intention glow. The thesaurus is just a light source—you direct it.

Tickled by Thesauri
So, a few ways that thesauri (gotta love the plural, something that sounds like it frolics in the ancient swamp with the diplodocus) can poke some quiescent writing:

  • Scanning synonyms for a single word change can often stimulate your thinking about a setting, character, conflict. Perhaps a full new paragraph, contributive to the work, might emerge.
  • The new word can refine a sentence, rather than burden it, or refine your thinking about how the sentence works in its larger setting.
  • And if you plain-out like words, it’s good fun to muck about in them. Take a word like “bungle.” Traipse around its synonyms and you play footsie with things like “botch,” “muff,” “fluff,” “flub,” and “make a hash of.” Tasty hash indeed.

Of course, you shouldn’t do much thesaurus trolling when you’re in the flow of your draft—let the words roll, and edit later. And don’t ever go into synonym rapture, where your sentences are so larded with fifty-cent words that they move like soggy dough. That ain’t writing—that’s bad architecture, where a story collapses of its own weak weight.

From my view, you’re no loser if you try to selectively fine-tune your writing by dipping into the thesaurus. Done with care, you’re still writing in your own voice; you’re listening to yourself with both ears pricked.

By the way, I’m going to see if I can get those loppers fixed. Good tools deserve a good long life.

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8 thoughts on “Trolling the Thesaurus: Timely Tool or Woeful Crutch?

  1. I forget the proper use of this tool, usually relating to the work of those who seem to use the thesaurus to find just the wrong word.

    Sometimes the picture hangs straight and the floorboard doesn’t creak, and if it ain’t broke don’t fix it. What I need to do, though, is listen closely for the occasional dull thump or hollow clang that needs tuning.

  2. Yes, the thesaurus can be a pretty blunt instrument when employing it in writing. Best to treat it like one of those peppers very high up on the Scoville scale—use sparingly, with caution.

  3. Unfortunately I tend to favor the Jackson Pollock approach to thesaurus use. It involves the dripping, flinging and occasional splattering of synonyms on the page. After reading your post, I wonder if a Matisse approach (vibrancy with harmony) is what I’m after in my writing (and in life in general!…).

    Also, a quick glance at the thesaurus for the word, “thesaurus,” compels me to put the “ass” back in your Jurassic Period scene:

    “The thesauri are frolicking in the ancient swamp when the onomasticon, a large but peaceful and mostly blind herbivore, accidentally sits on them.”

  4. I’m actually a big fan of the thesaurus, though I don’t use it all that often.

    I turn to the thesaurus when I can’t quite find the right word. I do have a print version somewhere, but I almost always use thesaurus.com instead.

  5. Annie, I’m probably more the unimaginative housepainter when it comes to the application of the synonymic colors: I just fill in the area needful of paint with the color that best matches what’s around it.

    I do love your example sentence. It reminded me of that Bambi vs Godzilla cartoon. (And I knew those herbivores were much more dangerous than advertised.)

  6. John, they do come in handy when there’s a hole in a sentence that needs patching and you don’t have the spackle at hand. Since I’m an old crustacean, I have all kinds of weighty reference books, including that Webster’s thesaurus, a big thesaurus of slang, and a couple of unabridged dictionaries that could be supports for bridges.

  7. Tom, you and a very few others taught me not to use weak verbs, and certainly not to employ weak verbs preceded by an adverb to make them appear stronger.
    Thus, “ambled,” never “slowly walked.”

    For those situations, and parallel ones that involve nouns, the thesaurus is both valuable and invaluable. Hah! There’s a fun example. Instance. Illustration. Case in point.

    And so with verbs, we seek strength and accuracy. With nouns and adjectives, I find it’s something intangible that we’re searching for with the thesaurus. When I listened to several antique Telechron clocks with the aim of describing their sound on the written page, I settled on “geary humming” rather than “whir,” “buzz” or anything else. The emotion was right, plus it was almost onomatopoeia, and it took a thesaurus to find that emotion, or at least the right word for it.

  8. Rick, I think the weak verbs/feeble adverbs statement should be stated with a “Physician, heal thyself” admonition, since I find myself weakly verbalizing—caught again!—quite a bit in my writing. But I do preach agin’ it.

    I do like your “geary humming” for the little turn it makes in the folds of my mind, which is as you express: the emotion was right. Of course you don’t want to contort or coddle or chisel every sentence and every word, but when you want a certain turn of phrase to turn just right, a thesaurus can give you the signal.

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