Don't Let Me Catch You Writing from a Thesaurus!

by Tina Blue
August 30, 2001

          An entry in the August 2000 Harper's Magazine
"Harper's Index"
caught my eye.  According to the index, the average vocabulary used by 6- to 14-year-old American children in their writing has fallen from 25,000 words in 1945 to 10,000 words today. 

          This bit of information, though shocking, is not really surprising to those of us who regularly read student writing.

          Unfortunately, children are not the only ones in our society who suffer from such paucity of language.  Even many adults with college degrees have a meager vocabulary, laden with cliches and with generic words and expressions.  This problem is not merely aesthetic, either.  Since language is the medium not only for expression, but also for analytical thought, a constrained vocabulary tends to undermine and limit a person's ability to think clearly and precisely.

          A lot of people try to solve this problem when they write by turning to a thesaurus to find substitutes for familiar words and phrases.  This approach can be risky, though, because words that are represented in a thesaurus as synonyms may not be interchangeable, even if there is a high degree of overlap in their meaning. 

          Two words with very similar denotations may have very different connotations, and even their similar denotations may be marked by subtle shades of difference.  Besides,  even if both denotation and connotation are nearly equivalent, there is always the danger that the words won't quite fit into the same grammatical structure. 

          If the word that you are choosing out of a thesaurus is not one that you are thoroughly familiar with, you might end up misusing it.

          I once knew a girl who was a very good writer in eighth and ninth grade.  But as a consequence of spending four years in AP English classes* in high school, her writing deteriorated to the point where it was virtually unreadable.  Her teachers automatically rewarded fancy words and a constant reaching after "variety," so she learned to write her essays normally at first, and then go back and substitute a multisyllabic word mined from the thesaurus for almost every common word in her paper. 

          Nor would she ever allow a repeated word or phrase to stand, even if the repetition was natural and effective, because she knew repeated words would be penalized.  (Did you notice how the repetition of "repeated word . . . repeated words" in the preceding sentence helps to link the ideas and to create rhetorical emphasis?)

          By plugging in words from an external source, words that had not come together during the organic process of composition, she also destroyed the rhythm and euphony of her prose.  All those words were "strangers"--they had not grown up together, so they did not fit well together.

          Despite the ominous tone of my title, I don't mind if a writer uses a thesaurus to help him recall a word that he knows but can't come up with at a given moment.  But a thesaurus should never be used to select big, fancy words for no other reason than that they are big, fancy words.  And a thesaurus should never be used to select a word that you really aren't familiar enough with to be sure that you are using it correctly.

          Sometimes when I write I will be aware that there is a precise word or phrase that I wish to use, but that isn't quite coming to me.  Rather than struggle over the word, though, and thus impede the flow of ideas as I write, I will write something that conveys, however clumsily, the gist of what I am after, and then enclose that word or phrase in brackets so that I can come back to it later and choose the way I really want to express that idea or image.

          I have never used a thesaurus myself, but if I ever did, it would be at such a point in my writing--when I am rethinking my phrasing of an idea that I know I didn't get quite right the first time.  And even then I would be using the thesaurus only to jog my memory, not to provide words that I really don't know how to use.
          When using a thesaurus, you should beware of the particular danger created by large gaps between your active and your passive vocabulary.  Your active vocabulary consists of all those words that you are thoroughly familiar with and that you use comfortably and naturally when speaking or writing.

          Your passive vocabulary consists of those words that you recognize when you come across them in context, but that you do not normally use yourself.  Many of the words in your passive vocabulary are probably not entirely clear to you.  You can pick up enough of their meaning to understand them  in context, but perhaps you would not be able to define some of those words or to use them yourself without feeling unsure about whether you are using them properly. 

          But even those passive vocabulary words that you do know how to use can come across as awkward and stilted if they are not words that you normally use.  The trick is not to avoid using words from your passive vocabulary, but rather to enlarge your active vocabulary so that it comes close to the size of your passive vocabulary.  That means taking the time when you speak or write to select precise and vivid language, to find the exact word for your meaning rather than falling back on generic phrasing.

          But even then you need to remember that context is everything.  Trotting out fancy words, however comfortable you may be with them, can mark you as a pedant if you are not matching the words to the rhetorical situation.  Think of William F. Buckley, who is famous not so much for his politics or his ideas as for the way he salts his writing with words that even most highly educated people have seldom (or never) encountered.  Most people consider this trait to be a silly quirk, not a sign of superior erudition.

          When I was married, I often had to attend dressy events in clothes that were much more formal than what I normally wore.  I have always hated to see the stilted stiffness of a woman whose hair, makeup, and clothing were obviously too elaborate for her to feel comfortable in.  Not wanting to look like a little girl playing dress-up or a teenager at her first formal, I took steps to make sure that whatever I wore felt comfortable to me.  About a week before a dress-up occasion, I would don whatever dress I was planning to wear and then do housework. 

          Not only did this give me a chance to get comfortable in my "costume"--it also allowed me to discover if I would have to be tugging at or adjusting the garment all evening.

          It's the same with your vocabulary.  If you have certain "dress-up" words that sit in your closet (i.e., your passive vocabulary) and only get trotted out for special occasions, your writing will seem stiff and overdressed.  It's even worse if you go to the store (the thesaurus) to "buy" a new word or phrase to wear for the first time on an occasion when you really would like to make a good impression. 

          Some people will suggest that you should use only certain kinds of words in your writing.  I have read books that advise writers to use a thesaurus to punch up their work.  I have also read books that warn writers to keep their language simple and to avoid big words.

          While I agree that you shouldn't put fancy words on parade in your writing, I have to insist that the issue is not whether you are using big words or little words, but whether you are using the right words.

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