Are you using a thesaurus correctly? And is this irony?

179909_620791327948192_959396268_nSometimes I wonder about the universe and how it will sync random events to make a point, teach us something, or just plain laugh at us.

Case in point

Yesterday, a fellow writer posted this some-ecard with the quote from Stephen King on Facebook and I wrote the following comment:

I don’t know– I think there’s an exception–if you’re only using words you find in there that you already know well and have just forgotten it, and so you’re like “oh, yes, that’s a good one.” Problem is when people use it to use words they don’t know and so potentially use it in the wrong context or it has a shade of meaning they are unfamiliar with. Or are just trying to use ‘impressive’ words. I sometimes (I’m of a certain age) find that I also forget nice simple words too.

And then I proceed to fire up the old Kindle to read a new book that should be right up my alley–a quirky, nerdy heroine stumbling toward love. It was recommended by another writer in a blog post as a refreshing, new voice and I just had to check it out. It started out great (voice, check), and I do really like the quirky, nerdy heroine (check), but soon I started cringing.

The problem?

The writer is using a vocabulary wider than her own. It clearly suffers from thesaurusitis and while the heroine is supposed to be über smart and nerdy, and so it would seem to be appropriate for the heroine to have a great vocabulary and use big words, the problem is, the writer doesn’t have the same vocabulary as the heroine she’s trying to write and so is using words that she thinks portrays the synonym for the word she looked up, but the shade of meaning or context is completely wrong. Making for some unintentional funny moments. Frankly, it’s spoiled the book for me, though I’m still going to continue reading it today just because I do like the heroine and her situation. But I won’t be recommending it to anyone. My co-worker asked if it was supposed to be intentional, but I don’t think so–this character isn’t being portrayed as someone who thinks she’s smart and using words in the wrong context to provide hilarity, she’s actually supposed to be smart.

And is this irony or just Alanis Morissette irony?

I hate to admit this, but I struggle with whether something is true irony, so help a girl out. Is the fact that I wrote that comment on Facebook saying there is an exception and then on the same day I start a book that illustrates the other half of my comment:

Problem is when people use it to use words they don’t know and so potentially use it in the wrong context or it has a shade of meaning they are unfamiliar with.

Is that true irony? Because I rarely read a book that suffers from thesaurusitis and it was kinda freaky for me to start one on the same day that did.

Do you agree with Stephen King re: thesaurus usage? Or, do you use one? And if so, how?

Tweetables:

  • Today @AngelaQuarles asks: Are you using a thesaurus correctly? And is this irony? click to tweet
  • Is a thesaurus useful or do you agree with Stephen King that a writer should never use it?  @angelaquarles click to tweet
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25 Comments

  1. I don’t know whether I’m commenting because I want to answer your question or scold you for planting that darned Alanis Morissette song in my head for the rest of the morning…

    Reply
  2. Nancy

     /  May 15, 2013

    I don’t agree with King because sometimes one needs to be reminded of an alternate word for one in danger of overuse.
    However I do agree , that quite often the word chosen has connotations that are missed. Also, some words have acquired a slightly different connotation from the dictionary definition.
    I might have to use a thesaurus to find a word to substitute for gay. I asked someone if she was gay to dissipation on a holiday and had to quickly rephrase that old quote.

    Reply
  3. Nancy

     /  May 15, 2013

    PS I really don’t understand irony but don’t think this coincidence qualifies.

    Reply
  4. I don’t agree. Just this morning I couldn’t think of the exact word I wanted to use in a comment, so I went to thesaurus.com and found it. I knew the word already, just couldn’t think of it. And considering that as I get older I sometimes can’t think of the word for the white stuff in the refrigerator that comes from a cow, I definitely wouldn’t say that every use of a thesaurus is unnecessary.

    As for irony, I don’t think this post quite fits, but it was still a great post. My favorite example of irony is BP posting a sign not to leave pumps unattended because “you are responsible for spills.”

    Reply
    • Exactly. I don’t use it to find some big word, but I truly do forget simple words now, LOL. My personal rule is to only use words I already know.

      Reply
    • I’m with Joyce on this. I don’t use a thesaurus to inflate anything, just to find a word I can’t remember or avoid overuse of the one I do remember.

      Reply
  5. I don’t agree. As you know, I write historicals and find myself referring to an historical thesaurus for period correct words.

    Reply
  6. I’ve seen this quote from King too and definitely disagree. Your summation is far better: Don’t use a thesaurus as a way to discover new, exciting words that your narrator/character would never use just to be all writerly or whatever. A thesaurus is a way of finding the right words, which sometimes slip your mind.

    Reply
    • Exactly Julie. Using it as a memory aid is beneficial, but as a tool for discovery, not so much. Thanks for commenting!

      Reply
  7. I forget words and if I’m not sure of a meaning I look it up

    Reply
  8. Just a regular ol’ thesaurus doesn’t do the trick for me. I treasure my Merriam-Webster New Dictionary of Synonyms, which I believe was discontinued some time ago. It discriminates among synonyms and gives actual examples from literary works. Consulting any thesaurus that merely lists synonyms without discrimination and examples merely leaves you with a word and your own definition of it and connotation. And, who knows, you could be way off base and never know it.

    Reply
  9. Interesting post. I’m with you in using a thesaurus to find the word that’s on the tip of my tongue – and not at my fingertips. I suppose reading a book that suffered from “thesaurusitus” was a bit ironic – but not completely since it wasn’t like you denied using the thesaurus can cause problems (probably would have been more ironic if you’d said “I’m sure that’s complete nonsense” – then read the book; least that’s my 2 cents). For me, I’m very close with my dictionary: editing work has taught me that if there’s even a doubt, look it up. (And yep, my preference is for an old collegiate – only if it’s a newer word do I turn to online sources.)

    Reply
  10. I basically use mine when I find I’ve overused a word and need to find something with a similar meaning to fit the sentence.

    Reply
  11. Julie

     /  May 15, 2013

    Well. If you didn’t agree with the King statement in the first place….how could it be ironic when you proved your point?

    Reply
    • True! I often confuse freaky coincidence with irony. It’s a horrible failing and I’m kind of embarrassed about it…

      Reply
  12. authorcarriecox

     /  May 15, 2013

    I use a thesaurus when the word is on the tip of my brain but I can’t think of it–but I know it when I see it–or when my spelling is so off, spell check and the dictionary are no help.

    Reply
  13. I use the thesaurus to find forgotten words. Yes, that description fits my use of the resource perfectly. Can’t imagine using a word I don’t understand in my manuscript. No, thank you.
    Hi, Angela. 🙂

    Reply
  14. I use a thesaurus as a reminder but keep the “connotation” in mind. English is a complicated language and perhaps King was really talking about connotation. Two words might essentially have the same definition but their common usage may fall into entirely realms. The word silly and ridiculous seem to mean the same thing. But one suggest amusement while the other one can mean the subject really was preposterous, or beyond the realm of belief. Perhaps not the best example, but you understand my meaning. 🙂 Common usage suggest the tone in which a word is used.

    Reply
    • Yep! That’s what I mean about it being a bad idea to use it to find a synonym and it’s a new word for you–the shades of meaning can be slight but all important. That’s what was unintentionally funny about this book– yes, they were synonyms, but the meaning/context was sooo wrong…

      Reply
  15. Stephen King is an important man in American writing. We can learn many things from him. Just not this. 😉

    Reply
  16. hahaha just because Stephen said it… Sometimes you need just the right word…and it lingers just out of reach on the proverbial tip of your tongue. Use the thesaurus! A fool is someone who has a tool but can’t use it from some misbegotten fear that he will fill the quota for irony. Just be smart about it.

    Reply
  17. I think I own a thesaurus, but I haven’t used it in years. Nor, truthfully, did I actually begin to use dictionaries until I was doing translation.

    Here as elsewhere, the secret of writing well is reading. For commenters above who are writing historical fiction, this goes double: language is a shape-shifter, an organism of its own, and words change meaning over time. Among others, ‘interesting’ (as in ‘pale and interesting’) does not mean the same in nineteenth-century English as it does in twenty-first-century English, and even within the same time period, cultural context alters cases. (‘Trivial’ and ‘degenerate’ as used in mathematics have a different sense than to general population.) Reading widely (both temporally and culturally) teaches layers of connotation that no dictionary or thesaurus can capture, though some come close. The compilation of dictionaries is itself an art requiring rigor and concision comparable to poetry.

    (A similar process of mutation can be observed in loan-words in foreign languages; ‘akuratnii’ in Russian and ‘accurate’ in English have very different senses, both evolving over time from the original Latin.)

    If you’re writing outside your own culture (as the writer you describe appears to be) make sure you run your work by a native speaker, as it were. I’m currently revising a vampire story that plays against contemporary practice in biological science research labs. The first-reader for that story, a microbiologist, has supplied me with correction of details and additional references.

    Reply
  18. I use a thesaurus all the time! But rarely for words I don’t know. I mainly use it to think of another word I already know to avoid overuse of the more common words that tend to repeat themselves in my first drafts. 🙂

    Reply

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