Thesaurus abuse

Poor Faulkner. Does he really think big emotions come from big words? He thinks I don’t know the ten-dollar words. I know them all right. But there are older and simpler and better words, and those are the ones I use.

Yes, they are good resources but writer's need to practice discipline to know when not to use them.
Yes, they are good resources, but writer’s need to practice discipline to know when not to use them.

Ernest Hemingway has a point often times an one-dollar word works far better than a ten-dollar word. While ten-dollar words have their place, often times, they just don’t hold the same power. They can break a moment as a reader has to pause and reach for a dictionary, or they just make the reader scratch their head, wondering about the word choice.

Words hold power to evoke powerful emotions in reader. I will admit to having wept at particularly moving lines — well-written lines. And when considering these lines that evoke strong emotion in me, they did not use ten-dollar words.

“Summer, and he watches his children’s heart break. Autumn again and Boo’s children needed him.” — “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee.

These two lines have stuck with me ever since I read “To Kill a Mockingbird” in high school. Simple sentences, simple words, yet so much power. “Where the Red Fern Grows” is an other example for me personally where the simple evoked so many tears; I remember just bawling my eyes out when reading that book. There is much power in the simple; it transcends across the broad spectrum of the human condition — there is no extra accessory required to appreciate it’s meaning.

Dictionaries and thesauruses have their uses, and sometimes it is fun to try a new word; however, writers need to make sure they do not cross the line of abuse. There is nothing as eye-rolling, as cringe-worthy, as thesaurus abuse. What makes thesaurus abuse even worse is when a writer plugs in a ten-dollar word and then fails to grasp its meaning, often to the reader’s amusement.

Christopher Paolini is the writer that instantly springs to mind when I think of thesaurus abuse. Several passages (if I had one of the books, I would share a few examples) feel as if Paolini has pulled words from SAT preps and the thesaurus. It is particularly hilarious because of a photo accompanying an article The New York Times published back in January 2012; the photo showed Paolini’s desk with the “Super Thesaurus” on it. Of course, Paolini is not the only guilty writer; he just happens to be the first one that pops into my mind.

Writers who plug in ill-fitting ten-dollar words no doubt think they are so clever; however, they often don’t realize the disconnect they cause with their readers. This is not to say that ten-dollar words can’t be done properly since they can if used wisely and sparingly.

My overall point: Choose your words carefully, pick the right one whether it is one-dollar or ten-dollar, don’t snub one-dollar words as inferior, and be sure you know what your ten-dollar words mean and how to use them.



Published by smwright

Sarah Wright is the author of The Heritage Lost Series and several other works of speculative fiction. Professionally, she works as a staff writer and editor at a newspaper/magazine company. She enjoys interweaving her love of history into her writing, even in the most fantastic settings.

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