It’s Not “Only Words”…Why You Need to Check Your Thesaurus More Often

As writers, words are our stock in trade and we are expected to know how to use them effectively in our work, so when I came across this bit of 411, it made me think about the number and types of words that I use. Out of the 600,000 words in the English language 99 percent of what we say is made up of 1,500-2,000 words. If this figure is right, then we are only using a very small portion of the words available to us. This seems like a real shame to me. Words are wonderful things, to my way of thinking. Look at all the things they can do:

  • Inform
  • Educate
  • Amuse
  • Titillate
  • Attract
  • Repulse

The right words can cause us rally around a cause or think about things in an entirely different manner. They can comfort us, or they can be used as a sword. Words are part of our important life events (think wedding vows and the eulogy delivered at a funeral). Think of all the greeting cards we buy to tell someone that we are thinking of them – using someone else’s words – at that. The right combination of words delivered by an impassioned speaker can change the world – whether that person actually composed the speech or not. All of these things can be accomplished by something that Dictionary.com defines as “a unit of language, consisting of one or more spoken sounds or their written representation, that functions as a principal carrier of meaning.” As writers, we owe it to ourselves to take advantage of all the tools at our disposal, including adding more words to our respective vocabularies. Instead of using the same words and word patterns that we have grown used to using, why don’t we take a fresh look at our writing: Are we using the right words to convey what we want to say? We need to open our minds to more possibilities by:

  • Not only reading what other writers have written, but by considering why they chose to use the words they did
  • Reaching for a thesaurus more often, or using one of the online versions available
  • Instead of skimming over unfamiliar words when we are reading something, stop to look them up in a dictionary. That new word may be something you can incorporate into your own writing.

Since the English language is constantly growing through the introduction of new words and phrases (Brangelina, anyone?), some people must think that we don’t have enough words to express ourselves as it is. Do you have any strategies you use to increase your vocabulary or do you feel comfortable with the number (and quality) of words you currently use in your writing?

Comments

  1. Great post! I love my thesaurus.

    There are a couple of things I do while playing with words. At my weekly Toastmasters meeting we have a Word of the Day. Everyone who speaks attempts to work that word into what they are speaking about. Sometimes people choose common, everyday words, but often the word chosen is new or relatively unknown to most of us.

    I also read poetry. I find that poets often use words that I am unfamiliar with or use them in new and interesting ways.

  2. I actually went over some of my earlier writing and realized that I was using the same words and phrases repeatedly. My lexicon is pretty wide, but I rarely use all the words at my disposal.

  3. I have a thesaurus that is getting worn and battered. Another book I couldn’t live without is one that discusses incorrectly used phrases and words–Anne Stilman’s Grammatically Correct.

    That’s where I learned that “just desserts” is not right. It is “just deserts” (deserts being a derivative of deserves) and that everyone who uses the phrase “just desserts” is wrong. I’m completely addicted to that book and have easily read it from cover to cover a dozen times since buying it.

  4. My husband bought me the Fitzhenry & Whiteside Canadian Thesaurus for Christmas a few years ago and it’s my most used book ever. It’s never more than two feet from me when I’m writing.

    I play a game with my thesaurus regularly. I know I have some overused ‘pet’ words.

    I take a piece of writing that needs jazzing up and decide to find five alternate words by choosing some of my pet words and looking up alternatives in my thesaurus.

    The only problem is that it’s like deciding to check a blog you love. Checking that blog leads to clicking a link somewhere else and then somewhere else. When I open my thesaurus, I often get caught up and lose track of time.

    Great post, Jodee.

    Dana

  5. Interesting 411! Here’s a tip: For those who use Microsoft Word, there’s an easy Thesaurus shortcut. Highlight the overused word, and click Shift+F7. Additional options will pop-up, and you can replace the word with an alternative in just one click.

    This is often not quite as robust as an online or hard copy Thesaurus, but I find it usually does the trick.

  6. Freddie Jaye says:

    While I heartily endorse the use of a thesaurus, one should always keep a dictionary right next to it. Those alternate words are often close in meaning to the original, but may carry with them certain shadings that won’t necessarily apply to the context of your writing. Check the precise definition first.

    As Mark Twain put it, “The difference between the right word and *almost* the right word is the difference between ‘lightning’ and ‘lightning bug.'”

  7. I couldn’t agree more, Freddie Jaye.

  8. Great post. I too use a lot of the same words. Often I wonder if reader will stop reading my stuff if I use other words which then causes me to keep using the same ones over and over. I like Dana´s system though. I think I´m going to go over some old stuff tonight once the little one is in bed!
    Once again, great thoughts!

  9. That is one frustrating difference between writing for print and writing for the web. Most of web writing is focused on SEO which involves using a lot of the same words over and over. Writing for print allows you to truly revel in marvelous words and their meanings.

    In my mind’s eye, enjoying the freedom of word usage in print is like rolling around on a bed covered with thousand dollar bills. :-)

    I think that was why I started my own blogs – because I didn’t care so much about SEO for them, but I did want to write the way I learned – with a (mental or printed) thesaurus handy. :-)

  10. Forgot my dictionary, it must weight ten pounds, but when I bought one, I wanted one that was really English and not American English, so I carried it all the way home.

    Words are great. There was a game we had when I was a teen, Balderdash. (Kind of like a board game version of the kid’s game “Dictionary” where you read a word and people have to guess what the definition is. I learned one of my favorite words through that game. “Parbreak.”

  11. Very true post. The best writing always manages to utilize the perfect wording. I always strive to find that perfect word in place of a more commonplace word and think of it as writing with a scalpel instead of a kitchen knife.

    I’ve recently considered getting some a hold of some of those little orange vocabulary books that were part of English class in Junior High and High School (not sure if they make more advanced editions). Although, I despised that work in school it really did have a huge impact on my vocabulary and there are many words that I would not be familiar with today without it. Even a refresher of some books that I have done would be helpful.

  12. English class never helped me at all, short of learning how to skip class and say how I’d gone to the hospital to visit my teacher senior year (he’d had a heart attack and we were subject to repeat subs.)

    It was in shorthand that grammar was drilled into me. Sadly though, after all that, I’ve learned that even with the grammar drillings I’ve had, there is a big difference between AP, Chicago and Gregg. Gregg is the grammar I learned in high school, but I’ve had to learn the other two as well and at times it gets awfully confusing keeping them straight!

  13. Thanks for the post Jodee. I probably overuse far too many words.

  14. I like using my own words for example ‘studenteology’.Isn’t a grammatical crime?
    Thanks.

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