If there is one thing you don’t want to appear in life, it’s addlepated. And that’s why this week’s installment is about the proper way to use a thesaurus in order to choose the right words for your story. Is it better to use the word addlepated or is it better to use the word foolish? Or, as Professor Larry Donner asks in Throw Mama From the Train, was the night moist, hot and wet, humid, or sultry? It depends. What is the context? If you’re writing dialogue, the words you choose depend on the character speaking. What kind of character is he? The right word depends on a lot of things.
Sometimes writers think that the right word is the most literate sounding word, or the one word they have never heard before, or the word with the most letters, or the one that sounds the most “intellectual.” They want to change “The brown bear ate Astrid” to read “The brown bear consumed Astrid.” This works okay, but there are pros and cons: there’s really nothing wrong with the word ate in this sentence, and, frankly, the word consumed tends to sound a bit clinical. But then, perhaps you are writing dialogue for a character who you want to have speaking in a clinical way for some reason (her occupation, her arrogance, her youth?) …then consumed is the right word.
But either way, ate and consumed are substitutes for each other. What I have seen most often with my editing clients when they’re using the thesaurus improperly is their selection of words that are not truly substitutable for the words they’re replacing. Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not make it an appropriate substitution. Let’s look at an example.
In The American Century Thesaurus, synonyms for the word LOUD (adj.) are as follows: (1). deafening, ear-splitting, booming, blaring, stentorian, thundering, thunderous, sonorous, noisy, clamorous, piercing, fortissimo (2). tawdry, garish, flashy, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, showy, ostentatious, Colloq splashy, snazzy, jazzy.
Which of those words would you use in the following sentence?
Astrid spoke in a(n) ___ voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.
Some of you would play it safe and choose noisy. Others, wanting to add something a bit more interesting, might choose piercing or ear-splitting. And some of you, wanting to be totally different, wanting to fulfill that future agent’s request that you send her work with “a fresh voice,” might choose the word FORTISSIMO! That works, right? The word fortissimo is listed under the “first sense” grouping (indicated by the number “1” in parenthesis in the entry above), so it must be similar to the words noisy and ear-splitting, and therefore must be substitutable, yes? Let’s try it:
Astrid spoke in a fortissimo voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.
Merriam-Webster defines fortissimo as “very loud” and states it is a word used in the direction of music. Does it sound right in the sentence above? I think it works if you’re writing comedy. If you’re being serious, though, the word fortissimo sounds silly.
Of course, you could do worse, you could choose a word from the “second sense” grouping (indicated by the number 2 in parenthesis in the entry above), and make a terrible mess altogether:
Astrid spoke in an ostentatious voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.
Dictionary.com defines ostentatious as “characterized by or given to pretentious or conspicuous show in an attempt to impress others: an ostentatious dresser.
“2. (of actions, manner, qualities exhibited, etc.) intended to attract notice: Lady Bountiful’s ostentatious charity.”
So, ostentatious doesn’t work at all in the sentence, and it’s no wonder the brown bear consumed Astrid.
Let’s try another:
Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent ____ to tickle the sleeping brown bear.
You could use the words: desire, longing, craving, appetite, taste, stomach, sympathy, predilection, penchant, fancy, eagerness, enthusiasm, zeal, furor, ardor. All these words are listed as synonyms in The American Century Thesaurus under the headword INCLINATION, and they are all listed under the same “sense” grouping. Because of this, many writers will at first believe they can all be substituted for inclination without an issue. But when I take some of those words and insert them into the sentence below, can you see the problem?
Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent appetite/taste/stomach/sympathy to tickle the sleeping brown bear.
Even though all the words I have entered in the sentence above are considered in the same sense grouping as longing and desire, they don’t work, do they? Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not mean the word is substitutable. So what word would you select? Personally, I’d choose the word “fancy” in this sentence; it hints at the child-like shenanigans for which the late Astrid obviously had a predilection.
The thesaurus is a wonderful tool, and playing with words, using different, fun words, is all a part of enjoying the writing life. But you must be careful. Every word in a thesaurus that’s been listed as a synonym for the word you’re trying to replace is not necessarily a good replacement, and can make you look
addlepated foolish if you’re not punctilious careful.
[THE AMERICAN CENTURY THESAURUS, Warner Books Paperback Edition by Lawrence Urdang, Inc. 1992, 1995]