Think Before You Thesaurus

The thesaurus is our friend. With a bit of poor application, though, it can cause unexpected pain.

So how do we avoid these grievous mistakes?

Don’t Use Words You Don’t Know

The reason this works is simple: if you only use words you know, you’re much more likely to use them correctly. Like Vizzini in the clip above, we all have words that we think we know and actually don’t, but those are much fewer than the horde of nonsense you find in a thesaurus. Using a simple word correctly communicates far more information than a complex word incorrectly.

Another reason to use only words you know is that your readers are more likely to understand them. If your word is perfect, large, and exciting, but no one who reads your story knows it without looking it up, it still doesn’t communicate your idea well.  People who read and write often are more likely to have a larger vocabulary, meaning that they (or you!) likely have a vocabulary that eclispses the average person’s.

Hall, in his 1991 article “Toward a Meaningful Definition of Vocabulary Size” in the Journal of Reading Behavior, estimates the average, native English speaking college student has a vocabulary of 17,000 words, but allows that some people have a larger vocabulary and others have smaller.*  When writing a book with intent to sell, as well, you may be marketing towards a younger audience with a smaller vocabulary, or perhaps an audience educated in a different way (i.e. people who speak English as a second language, scientists and engineers rather than linguists and English majors).  There are definitely large discrepancies between what types of words people know.  For instance, students in the sciences learn a different set of jargon than a student in the humanities.  Both are likely similar in scope and usefulness, but it presents difficulties for people wishing to bridge that gap.  As everyone in every writing class I’ve taken likes to say, write toward an audience, and if the audience is broad like it would be for most speculative fiction (let’s be real, that’s what this little site is about), write as simply and succinctly as your ideas allow.

So, if you don’t know a word, other people probably don’t either. Consider strongly whether or not to use it and, if you decide it’s necessary, look for the word used in context before you commit.

Stay Away From the Unnecessarily Arcane

English is an ever-evolving language because it is very much alive, and words fall out of use or come into use all the time. Though your goal may be to write a timeless piece that withstands the test of the ages, your words will inevitably fall out of favor eventually and people will have to hire scholars to translate English from your time. Communicate in as effective a manner as possible with what you have in the now, stepping into the arcane and difficult only when it adds something major to the story.

Adding tone to a narrator or character meant to seem like they’re from the past is likely the most common reason to use arcane words.  Be careful, though – this can be taken too far.  Often, the words ‘thee,’ ‘thy,’ and others of that ilk are used to make writings seem ancient or religious in tone, but they can get annoying and difficult to weed through if too prevalent.  Since we (except for people from certain regions of England) no longer speak this way natively, it can also be easy to use these words incorrectly anyway.

Using old words in a similar manner to created words with special definitions or connections to the world can be effective.  One has to be careful not to butcher these words or use them in a manner wholly different from the original meaning, but otherwise this can add depth to a story.

Accuracy vs. Precision

The engineer in me is going to come out now. The above words don’t have the same meanings in every field, so you may know a different set of definitions than what I am going to describe.

Accuracy measures how close a measurement comes to the targeted value. In our case right now, a word is accurate if it means exactly what you want it to mean. Precision, however, is a measure of how close together several measurements come to each other regardless of how close they are to the target. A precise group of words can dance around a targeted meaning but never exactly overlap with what you want.

When using the thesaurus, remember that there are plenty of words that are precise and mean very similar things, but that doesn’t necessarily mean accuracy. Use the thesaurus to gain accuracy by finding exactly the right word, and use the precision of the thesaurus to vary your vocabulary enough that your sentences don’t become boring. Don’t look in a thesaurus for an accurate word in efforts to make a sentence sound fancier just to settle for a precise word that is confusing or, worse, wrong.

I hope you enjoyed this installation – stay tuned for more writing resources, or look at my Writing Resources page for other hints and tips.

*Almost all counts of vocabulary size are skewed, due especially because of the definition of a word.  It is also skewed because the test must necessarily be sample based rather than have people list out the entirety of their word knowledge.  In addition, a more recent study would likely have a more updated number.

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