• Andrew Johnston

The Use and Abuse of the Thesaurus

While I've written quite a bit about dialogue tags, the truth is that I don't care about tags per se as much as I do about a greater point relating to them. "Creative" dialogue tagging is just one battle in a much greater campaign concerning the horrors of thesaurus abuse. The thesaurus is a tool, and like any tool it can do good or evil depending on how it's used, and too many times I've seen this tool used to murder a respectable piece of fiction.


Using a thesaurus is something like taking aspirin. In small doses, it can alleviate common problems. In large doses, it wrecks your health - and in any case, it's not an alternative to surgery. Unfortunately, there are a lot of people out there encouraging the unsuspecting to down those aspirin by the bottle.


I found an especially bad example recently:

Disclosure: I've modified this image, and not just in the obvious way. The version I had included a URL that I believe was being used to promote an affiliate marketing "business" that had nothing to do with writing. In the interest of not getting money to grifters, I scrubbed it out (though even at the original resolution, it was barely legible).


As I said, this is an awful image even by the standards of these kinds of writer's helpers, and the people who showed it to me were roasting it pretty good. Whoever put this together made a lot of odd mistakes, likely in the name of padding out the list. Just for grins, here are a few:

  • Many of the words on this list are not verbs, but are nouns or adjectives with (sometimes obscure) verb forms, so you couldn't use them without modifying them first. Examples include surveillance (should be "surveil"), reconnaissance ("reconnoiter"), and observation ("observe").

  • Many of the words are in the wrong tense - instead of the simple tense, they're in progressive tense, which isn't going to work unless the story in question is phrased in the present. Examples include regarding, seeing, and noticing.

  • On a more absurd note, many of these words aren't actually synonyms for "look" at all, but appear on this list in part because whoever created it was stealing from this MacMillan list of terms relating to facial expressions, not just movements of the eyes. Examples include mope, sulk (which appears twice, as do a few other words), smile, scowl, sneer and frown. Then there are the real oddballs, such as baby-sit, quest, grope, rummage or resemble - I could not tell you how those even could have made this list.

  • But the real problem words are the ones that have more specific meanings that the list doesn't specify. Rubbernecking refers to turning one's head while walking by, and (in the U.S., at least) is generally used to describe onlookers at car accidents, crime scenes or natural disasters. Audit is a term that's rarely used outside of the context of taxes or college classes. These nuances are lost when these are just two words on a list of dozens.

Most of the words on this list are not generic synonyms for "look" - they have additional connotations that might make the final work look very strange if they're misused. True, it's unlikely that someone would sub in a word like "reconnoiter" or "audit," but how about "ogle"? Ogle is a word with subtext that's meant to be used in certain contexts. Same with leer, size up, glare, beam, or case. One can only swap these in for "look" in certain situations, and except for the ones at the top that were stolen from MacMillan, the image creators didn't go into detail.


As I said, this is an overtly bad list and I don't think many people will find it compelling, but there are other, slightly less awful lists that float around for years. So who gets sucked in by these? I've narrowed it down to two groups.


First, you have very young writers, especially teenagers. Fiction written by teens often features overly colorful and badly misused language, a common trait of thesaurus abuse. Inexperience plays a big part in this, but some of the blame goes to the way we teach writing. Schools tend to focus on writing as a mechanical skill (the structural aspects being easier to objectively grade) and teachers will encourage thesaurus use to fix the mechanical fault of repetition. Again, this is a temporary fix that's fine if you're just trying to get through that class. Down the line, when you're putting the finishing touches on a manuscript, it will come back to bite you in the ass.


The second group is one I didn't really consider until very recently. I've become aware that there are a lot of non-native English speakers trying to write fiction in English, and thesaurus abusing lists can really lead them astray. This is particularly bad when the writer's native language doesn't have the same lexical diversity as English. My Chinese students struggle with the notion of a single concept having dozens of synonyms with slightly different meanings. Lists like this that destroy all of that nuance can really mislead someone with a less-than-fluent grasp on the language.


Everything here applies to the "good" lists as much as the bad ones, so please: Don't share lists like this in writer's groups, especially if you know those groups contain a lot of people who are young and/or non-native speakers. You might not be helping.

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