You’ve written a sentence, but there’s something not quite right. Structurally it’s a good sentence, but it just doesn’t convey the meaning you want. Something about one of the words makes the sentence sound wrong. Is that feeling familiar? Well, it’s time you learn how to use a thesaurus to improve your writing.
What is a Thesaurus?
Originally the word meant a storehouse, or a treasury. But in 1852 it took on another meaning when Peter Mark Roget published a pet project, almost 50 years in the making. It was called a “Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases Classified so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and to Assist in Literary Composition.” That’s a lot of words. If Roget had published his work in the 21st century, it might have been titled, “Roget’s Book of Synonyms to Help Writers Write Better.” That title would help clue you in to the purpose of a thesaurus. It’s like a dictionary, and alphabetical, but it’s all about synonyms and antonyms, too. So now, without further ado. . . .
How to Use a Thesaurus
Back to that pesky sentence that doesn’t sound correct. Take a look at your words. Is one of them in particular standing out? Maybe the word’s meaning is slightly off? Is there a nuance there that you don’t like? Maybe the meaning is fine but the word itself breaks the sentence flow. (Have you ever noticed the power of a little alliteration in a sentence? Just look at this example, “Dad was opposed to the idea” versus “Dad disagreed with the idea.”) Or, maybe you’ve just used one word, and you don’t want to repeat yourself by using it again.
No matter the reason, you need a replacement word, and a thesaurus can provide a synonym. It will help you find the perfect word for your sentence. You might have an old thesaurus on your shelf. Or maybe your dictionary occasionally lists some synonyms or antonyms. Those would be better than nothing, but there’s a better option because thesauruses are now available on apps, websites, and even in word processors.
(Pro Tip: If you’re using a Google Doc and want to use a thesaurus, highlight the word you want to look up and then go to Tools > Dictionary, or hit Command + Shift + Y. In a sidebar, a definition of your selected word will pop up with both synonyms and antonyms listed for common words.)
While word processors are helpful, they’re not the very best. If you’d like to use a proper website, take a look at Thesaurus.com or my personal favorite, the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus. For ease of access, consider downloading a dictionary and thesaurus app onto your phone. (Again, Merriam-Webster is my go-to choice although the ads in the free version can be a bit annoying.)
Using a thesaurus is a lot like using a dictionary, look up or type the word you want, and it will provide you with a list of synonyms and usually some antonyms tacked on at the end. Here’s a couple hints for maximizing your thesaurus use.
Tips and Tricks
If you’re writing and can’t think of the right word to use in a sentence, look up a simple word with the same meaning in the thesaurus. For example, you’re working on a dialogue and look up “said,” read through the thesaurus list, and pick “asserted” for your sentence.
Sometimes your thesaurus search might be too specific. If that’s the case, look up a more common synonym of the word you want. For example, “furiously” doesn’t get any hits in the Merriam Webster thesaurus, but “angrily” will get you a long list of options.
As I mentioned before, using a thesaurus can be a great way to add some alliteration to your writing. Properly used, alliteration can help your writing sound smooth and flow nicely. If you’re experimenting with alliteration, try reading your sentence aloud with different words you find in the thesaurus. However, now that we’ve covered how to use a thesaurus, let’s take a quick look at:
How Not to Use a Thesaurus
Remember when you first learned about descriptive words? Suddenly the word “said” vanished from your vocabulary. Your writing probably looked something like this . . .
“Someone has been eating my porridge!” The father bear thundered.
“Someone has been eating my porridge!” The mother bear proclaimed.
“Someone has been eating my porridge!” The baby bear squeaked.
You know what I mean. It is possible to have too much of a good thing. So don’t go to town too much with your synonyms. Remember that a really good writer knows the power of simple prose. Well placed synonyms will help your writing improve, but too many synonyms will bog down your sentences. If you need some more writing tips, take a look at the 5 steps of the writing process or our recent review of Grammarly for more ways to improve your writing.
Summing it Up
Properly used, a thesaurus is a powerful tool in your writer’s tool box. (Or should we say, desk?) Now that you know how to use a thesaurus, you can write with confidence and creativity, using synonyms and antonyms to enhance your writing. So what are you waiting for? Start writing today!
Thesaurus.com —Search through 3 million synonyms and antonyms
Merriam-Webster Thesaurus —My personal favorite
The 100 best nonfiction books: No 65 —You guessed it, it’s Roget’s Thesaurus!