Mammoth Mandibles:The Benefits of Using a Thesaurus

More than once, I’ve come across the suggestion that writers shouldn’t use a thesaurus, that they should keep their words simple and avoid “fancy” language. In my opinion, that’s nonsense.

One of the things I love most about the English language is its nuances. A character can walk, stroll, strut, saunter, march, amble, wander, mosey, stride, pace, swagger, stalk . . . and the list goes on, with each word painting a different picture. Because that’s what a well-chosen word can do, paint a vivid picture.

Think of your thesaurus as an artist’s paintbrush. Use it to pick up as much or as little color as you need to create the image you want your readers to see. Be precise. Be creative. Explore the language and have fun with it. Beyond the obvious benefit of increasing your vocabulary, you’ll reduce repetition in your story and, if you’re like me, gain intense satisfaction in finding the perfect word.

A few words of caution, however. Be careful that you don’t get carried away and start slapping too many colors onto your painting, especially the more unusual ones. If you find the perfect word but it’s not in common use, restrict it to one or two appearances in your manuscript. Any more than that will catch a reader’s attention, and not in a good way. Also, don’t limit yourself to the thesaurus in your Word program. While it’s a good start, and better than nothing, treat yourself to a full-sized version such as Roget’s International Thesaurus where you’ll find words you’d forgotten you ever knew and a whole lot more you’ll want to know.

As an aside, a thesaurus can be just plain fun to peruse. Case in point: when my twin daughters were in Grade 3, they hit a stage of sibling rivalry that was slowly driving me mad. I was tired of listening to them hurl the same insults at one another ad nauseum,  and my efforts to stop them from doing so had failed. Miserably. In a moment of parental ingenuity, I told them that they could insult one another all they wanted (not what they expected their mother to say) on one condition: they had to find new words for doing so.

I armed them each with a pocket thesaurus, taught them how to use it, and left them to battle it out. The results were brilliant. Apart from the fight I’d interrupted dissolving into hilarity, the girls learned to use a wonderful new tool years before their peers, their vocabularies exploded, and I no longer had to listen to the same tired arguments over and over again. For years after, the new game of one-upmanship in the house centered around who could come up with the most creative insult, defusing more than one argument in the process. My favorite? Mammoth mandibles . . . also known as big mouth.

How about you? If you’re a writer, do you use a thesaurus? If you’re a reader, do you wish more writers did so?




7 responses to “Mammoth Mandibles:The Benefits of Using a Thesaurus”

  1. Stella (Ex Libris) Avatar

    I love Thesaurus! And I like when authors use a colourful vocabulary, I find it too simplified if they only use very common words. And I like the changellenge. Also, my vocabulary can expand only if I encounter a few words I wasn’t familiar with yet. And love your metaphor of seeing it as a painting palette 🙂

  2. lindapoitevin Avatar

    Thanks, Stella, and I couldn’t agree with you more about the challenge…helps keep me young, lol!

  3. Jeffrey Hollar Avatar

    I use a thesaurus with nearly every new piece of writing I do. While I have, what I would like to think is, a better-than-average vocabulary, it doesn’t guarantee every word I know springs to mind easily. I use the thesaurus to jump-start my vocabulary engine sometimes.

    1. lindapoitevin Avatar

      That’s exactly what I use it for, too, Jeffrey…with a dictionary close at hand for looking up ones I’ve never heard of before! 🙂

  4. Emilia_Quill Avatar

    English isn’t my native language, as a result I frequent finnish-english dictionary site and Rogets Thesaurus. If I’m unsure I check the dictionary for an explanation on the word and choose the right one accordingly. It’s certainly increased my vocabulary, when I graduated from high school and did the equilavent of ‘GCSE’ I got a high grade in english whereas in finnish I got a B, which is one notch above just passing the test.

    I love to learn new words and I sometimes use strange words as names. Such as Mellifluous as the name of a sleek, water bound creature.They’re descriptive if the reader know what the words means and if not it’s still a great name.

    1. lindapoitevin Avatar

      I love the idea of using unusual words as names, Emilia! Excellent idea. 🙂

  5. […] If you get stuck with what words to use or if you’re using the same word over and over again you can use a thesaurus to find other words that mean the same thing as the word you are over using. They can be nouns and they can be […]

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