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Most decent writers will tell you that if your using a thesaurus, you’re doing it wrong.  The sentiment is that one is trying to plump up their own writing, as though substituting a few words in a sentence of a paragraph will suddenly make it bedazzled enough to be special.  In short it seems at first to be a tactic for masking a lack of substance.


So if the thesaurus has such a bad rap, why do we have them?  Are they just an obligation of our cataloging nature?


No.  The most important use of the thesaurus is actually an inversion of the way amateur writers use it.  The thesaurus comes in handy when a writer has a concept on the tip of their mind and it splinters into a variety of ways to be expressed, but there’s one missing – the most appropriate way to capture that meaning. It’s best used when there’s a word on the tip of your tongue, or you sense that there’s a nuanced flavor of the meaning you’re trying to express that you sense is captured by a word you know, or know of.


This is the reason why a wood worker or a mechanic or a hobbyist goes to a hardware store.  They’re working on a project and come across a situation where a specific tool would come in handy.  The writer goes to the thesaurus just as the hobbyist goes in search of that one particular tool they saw once.  In short, to use a thesaurus well means to already be well acquainted with the realm you enter.


But given no rush, what does the woodworker or hobbyist do at the hardware store?  Well it’s like a kid in a candystore.  You just have to meander, browse and wander around and take a look at everything else that’s available.  It’s in this way that the thesaurus then begins to inhabit a spectrum of use that stretches in the direction of the amateur writer.


The amateur writer usually has an innate sense that their writing isn’t worded as well as it could be.  The only way to get better is to get better acquainted with the tools available, and a thesaurus is a far more efficient way of doing this than a dictionary, but only when it is used in conjunction with a dictionary. 


The thesaurus groups things vaguely, dictionaries highlight individual nuance.


We learn by association.  The thesaurus is most closely related to this, but we understand deeply only through detail, and this is the dictionary.  Both are important tools.  And just as a beautiful woodshop is just a room full of tools without a woodworker, dictionaries, the thesaurus, and the words they contain are meaningless without the people who use them.

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Podcast Ep. 753: How to use a Thesaurus

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