Should you bury your thesaurus? I ask because my favourite ‘word of the day’ blogger, Anthony Esolen at First Things, recommends this course of action to his students and readers. He doesn’t actually want his students to bury their thesauruses, of course – most students don’t even own spades; he wants them to stop misusing them. How do you misuse a thesaurus? Well, you look for a synonym for a word you are using too much, let’s say ‘big’, and find one that you hardly use at all, like ‘vast’, ‘massive’ or ‘large’. Then, without considering for a moment the connotations of the new word or its usual uses, you put it in a sentence where you were going to write ‘big’. Esolen gives some examples of the absurd results that follow in his post.
A large varied vocabulary is a good thing, something rightly rewarded on exam scripts and controlled assessments. But indiscriminate use of inexact synonyms makes you sound pretentious and occasionally ridiculous.
Still, I don’t think you should bury yours. They can be useful. I sometimes use mine when I’m having one of those ‘tip of the tongue’ moments: Oh what’s that word again? It means something like ‘department’, but that’s not the word you’re supposed to use in this situation… Ah-ha! ‘Division’ there it is. Then there are the moments where a word you have used sounds a little wrong: I’ve called the plot of this film ‘preposterous’ but that’s going a bit far. I mean, it’s no more ridiculous than most Hollywood stories – it’s just something doesn’t quite add up. Let’s see… There we are: the plot is ‘implausible’.
I would further argue that you can actually use your thesaurus to find new words to use and thus improve your vocabulary. It’s just important that you look up any unfamiliar words in the dictionary too, so you’re absolutely sure of their exact meaning and usage. Then you can use your search engine to look for sentences in which they have been used.
Look up the word ‘deprive’ in your thesaurus. If any words are very unfamiliar, look them up and get some example sentences from the internet. Then write an example sentence of your own for each alternative word given.