Why You Should and Shouldn't Use a Thesaurus

A Brief Insight to Why You Should or Shouldn't Use a Thesaurus

A thesaurus can be a useful tool for anyone that needs to communicate with other people. What is it? Are there times when you shouldn't use it? Let's find out...
By Earl Hunsinger

It's been said that two of the most useful tools that a writer can own are a dictionary and a thesaurus. Of course, in this modern era, it is not even necessary to own these, assuming that you own a computer connected to the Internet. The Internet contains numerous free dictionaries and thesauruses that can be accessed as online resources. Whether you are a writer or not, all of us are communicators. To interact with other people, you must use some form of language. Words play an essential role in practically every human activity. Because of this, the ability to communicate well is critical to success in life, not matter how you define the term success.

While most of us are probably at least somewhat familiar with the role and use of a dictionary, the thesaurus may be more of a mystery. What better way to start a discussion of online dictionaries and thesauruses, than to consult one? According to the Merriam-Webster online dictionary, the word thesaurus comes from a Latin word meaning 'treasure' or 'collection'. It is used to refer to a treasury, storehouse or 'a book of words or of information about a particular field or set of concepts; especially: a book of words and their synonyms'. This last definition is the one most commonly meant, and the one that we will focus on.

You probably already know what a synonym is. If not a good online dictionary can help you with that. Actually, even if you think you know what a word means (like the word synonym) it can often be very helpful to look it up anyway (more about this in a minute). I'll save you the trouble of looking it up (this time); Merriam-Webster defines a synonym as 'one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses'. It's logical to ask: if you already have a perfectly good word, why would you want to find a different word that means the same thing? Isn't that just extra work? Yes and no.

Sometimes, using a thesaurus is pointless. In fact, if used improperly, something that started as a means of facilitating communication can do just the opposite. Many people are tempted, especially when they first get their brand new thesaurus, to begin using it for everything. They begin to confabulate instead of converse, enucleate instead of explain. As someone once said, although a voluminous vocabulary is laudable, one must nevertheless remain circumspect that the objective of one's verbal communiqué does not become ensconced in nebulousness and obfuscation. This doesn't mean that you should throw away your thesaurus. Using synonyms is beneficial in two ways, both of which can contribute to good communication.

The first purpose for using a different word should be obvious; it's boring to use the same word every time. Making the same statement with different words will make your writing, or speech, more interesting. Describing something from many angles, rather than just one, will paint a clearer picture for your audience. It may allow them to gain a better understanding of your exact meaning. This brings us to the second benefit of using a thesaurus.

You may have noticed from the dictionary definition of a synonym that it is a word that has the same or nearly the same meaning. The key is the expression 'nearly the same'. The English language has a rich vocabulary. It contains many words with similar but slightly different meanings. This allows a skilled writer to make very subtle distinctions. To do this, it's important to recognize that words have both denotations and connotations. A word's denotation is its direct meaning, its dictionary definition. The connotation is an implied or suggested meaning; you might say that it includes the feelings generated by the word. As an example, you might feel complimented if someone referred to you as thin, slim, or slender. Would you feel the same way if they said that you were scrawny, skeletal, or emaciated? These words have nearly the same meaning. The subtle differences implied by the word 'nearly' make it critical to choose your words carefully. This is why, consulting a dictionary can be helpful, even if you already believe that you know what a word means. The dictionary definitions, along with common usage, may help you gain a better understanding of the differences between similar words.

You've used a dictionary. You probably own one. You may already use one or more online dictionaries. If you've never gotten into the habit of using a thesaurus, why not start? Many online thesauruses are available. The Merriam-Webster site mentioned earlier, contains both a dictionary and thesaurus. Using these two tools can enrich your writing and speech, and allow you to better convey your exact meaning to others. You can refer to it at all times, but simply make sure that you use synonyms only where necessary and when the sentence gets enhanced, and not just for the sake of using it. Every single situation differs.