Using a Thesaurus to Improve Word Choice


Most of us wish we had a better vocabulary and more sophisticated word choice. We usually wish we could find better words for emotions, along with better action words. How many times have we written something like: “He was mad, so he ran seven miles to burn it off.” Only to realize, that “mad” is inadequate for what he must have felt when he found out his wife had just had a child with another man. And “ran” doesn’t quite capture the trek up the ragged mountain face that he did as a result. When we feel so inadequate, we end up using a Thesaurus.

Using a Thesaurus to Improve Word Choice

It is a beautiful thing to do if you know the word you are substituting and if the new word or synonym doesn’t alter your sentence in a negative way. In the above example, we could use “irate,” “indignant,” or “outraged” instead of mad. And we could use “jogged,” “trotted,” or “dashed” instead of ran. But if our sentence ends up “He was indignant, so he trotted seven miles,” that doesn’t quite do what our original sentence did. He sounds mildly irritated and like he went out for a simple, albeit long, stroll. When trying to use more descriptive words, make sure the ones you’re using are correct.

So when trying to use more specific words, first make sure you’ve got the right ones. Then verify that the sentence is as good or better with the new ones. And watch out for “purple prose”—that sort of lengthy, show-offy writing that only annoys your readers. For instance: “Thoroughly depressed and downtrodden due to the painfully obvious fact of his fickle wife’s despicable infidelities, not to mention her wanton abuse of his emotions, our beloved hero charged out the door and up the prickly mountainside, hoping to fall and break a leg or two, so she—that evil wench, that traitorous harlot—would be truly sorry.”

In this case, just say: “He was mad, so he ran seven miles to burn it off.”

Sometimes simple and to the point is best.

Originally posted 9/4/2011 and happily updated 10/25/2017. Thanks for reading!

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