Warning: Don’t Overuse The Thesaurus

The thesaurus and I were best friends back in middle school. I used the thesaurus for every paper and essay I wrote. I thought that I would sound smarter if I used bigger or more obscure words in replacement of simple ones. I thought I beat the system…

But, it backfired. If you use a word you’re not familiar with, you won’t be sure how to use it properly in a sentence – which can actually make you sound less intelligent.

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So instead of a sentence like, (1) “My dog Skip went to the park today.”
I would end up with a sentence like, (2) “My canine Skip decamp to the esplanade present.”

I just took a fancy sounding word from each thesaurus list and inserted it into the sentence. Because I didn’t really know what the words meant, and I didn’t know how to use them properly, the sentence didn’t make much sense. In fact, it sounded pretty awkward.

In theory, using a thesaurus to replace “common” words is a great idea. You just look up a word you want to replace and find the fanciest sounding word. But, it doesn’t work like that. Why? Well, first of all, not all words are created equally. Sometimes when you use certain words, it either changes the meaning of the word or the sentence. For example, ‘present’ is a synonym for today. ‘Today’ means the current day you are in. Whereas, present means existing or happening right now. So present completely changes my first sentence! In the second sentence, I’m implying that Skip is currently going to the park, whereas, in my first sentence I suggested that he already went to the park that day. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, and this particular example, it’s not. But it goes to show how words can change the meaning of a sentence.

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Also, using words you’re not familiar with can make your sentences sound weird and funny. People know you don’t really talk like that. Readers can sense that you’re being fake. So be honest with your writing. Stephen King wrote a book called On Writing. In it he said that your current vocabulary is fine. Whatever words you currently know, you should use in your writing. Of course, if you’re interested in improving your writing, it’s a good idea to try and learn some new vocabulary. But, that shouldn’t be your main focus. Try to keep your writing as simple as possible, and as true to you as possible.

When you embrace your vocabulary and keep things simple, you won’t feel the need to vamp up your writing. In time, as your vocabulary improves, you will slowly start to integrate those words into your writing. There’s no need to try to impress everybody and make yourself sound smarter.

As a teacher, I’ve read many papers where students have overused their thesaurus. The writing itself wasn’t bad at all! But, the awkward sounding sentences and word placement made their writing suffer. Don’t let that happen to you! Don’t overuse your thesaurus – no matter how great the temptation is.

So, what about you? Have you ever overused your thesaurus?

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4 thoughts on “Warning: Don’t Overuse The Thesaurus

  1. There’s nothing stupider than trying to sound smart! When people use big and fancy words that aren’t commonly used or understood, language loses its purpose. There is a time and place for certain words, and in literary text some may be okay. In spoken conversation however, ain’t nobody got time for dat! 🙂

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