Basics of writingConfusing words

English is hard–PART 2: Thesaurus evils

From Rick:

Last time we talked about the confusion arising from look-alike and sound-alike words in English, along with identical-appearing words whose meaning varies with their pronunciation.


This time, I’m going to talk about the pitfalls of trying to vary our writing by using a thesaurus to find variant words to use. Mark Twain said, “Use the right word, not its second cousin.” By this he meant that we should endeavor to find the best word for our intended meaning.

In addition to the word confusion we talked about last time, another thing that makes English difficult is that it’s a very rich language in terms of vocabulary words. While many words do have true synonyms, many so-called synonyms are only close in their meaning. Because of this, writers must careful when using a thesaurus to choose alternative words.

Most of you know what a thesaurus is. Look it up if you don’t. Now, is the plural of “thesaurus” thesauruses or thesauri?

We’ll get to that in a minute. Since I know you all love to know the origin of word meanings and the roots that make them up, let’s look at this one. “Thesaurus” comes from the Greek, but unlike the words like “synonym” and “homonym” that we dealt with in PART 1 of this topic, this word derives from one Greek word, not two. The “saurus” part of “thesaurus” does not come from the Greek root “sauros” and refers to a large reptile that might want you for dinner.

“Thesaurus” comes from the Greek “thesauros” meaning “storehouse” or “treasure.”

As for the plural, both are considered correct. The word “thesaurus” itself, although from a Greek word, is considered New Latin. Hence, the plural would be “thesauri.” But as with a number of words in English, some of the old ways have given way to newer ways, just as “data,” originally the plural of “datum,” is now considered both singular and plural.

With that out of the way, let look at some examples of problems that I’ve encountered recently.

Let’s say you want a word that means “quickly” to substitute in the sentence “They moved quickly along the trail.” You check an online thesaurus for synonyms for “quickly.” I used and came up with the following, in this order:


Unfortunately, these are presented not in order of closest meaning, but in alphabetical order. In fact, many of the synonyms close to meaning “quickly” occur at the end of this list. I recently was editing a novel wherein the author used “expeditiously” as a synonym for “quickly” or “swiftly.”

They weaved expeditiously through the buildings.

Maybe this author used the same thesaurus I just did and picked the first “synonym.” Do you see the problem? In this sentence, “expeditious” is not strictly incorrect, but it’s definitely not the best choice or probably what the author intended. “Expeditious” means quick in the sense of being done with speed and efficiency or in a prompt manner, sometimes with the sense of priority as in the this sentence: Certain customers expect their orders to be processed expeditiously.

I’m not convinced that this author intended to show the characters as moving fast and efficiently, but swiftly and perhaps with purpose.


Let’s look at another poor synonym choice.

They nodded in unencumbered approval.

I believe the author intended that the approval was given freely, without a second thought, with no misgivings, unrestrained. However, “unencumbered” means–

“not impeded, not slowed down or retarded; free to move, advance, or go forward; having few or no burdens or obligations.”

The sense of “unrestrained” in “unencumbered” is one of not being burdened, not the sense of “enthusiastic,” which is probably closer to what the author intended. Without knowing which thesaurus the author used, we can’t do more than guess at what the author’s trigger word for a synonym was in this case, but perhaps a better rendering of the sentence would be this:

They nodded in enthusiastic approval.


The front gate lit up with voracious red-orange light.

The author here apparently wanted to give the impression that the light (a fire) was “rapidly consuming” the gate, but “voracious” refers to the consumption of food (as a voracious appetite), not to a fire consuming something—unless this is a living fire of some sort.


The battle just got exponentially more difficult to win.

Okay, there is nothing wrong with “exponentially” as used here in terms of meaning. However, the problem is that this phrase was used in a more traditional fantasy novel (with knights and magic), not in a modern-day story with technology. The term “exponentially” is a mathematical and more technical term (even though we use it freely today in non-technical speech), and is therefore not one that fits the setting or language being used in this story.

NOTE: I’ll be discussing more about appropriate language and word choices in an upcoming joint article with Kellee Kranendonk on “Diction, style, tone, voice.”


His leg broke with an excruciating snap.

This sentence intended to say that the leg bone snapped and excruciating pain resulted. This is a misplaced adjective. A “snap” itself cannot be excruciating.

We could fix this in a number of ways:

With a snap his leg broke and excruciating pain shot through it.


What lessons can we learn from these examples?

1— Verify that your alternative word choices mean what you think they mean. Dictionaries are far more helpful in this regard. Most thesauruses are designed to show word relationships by categories to help you zero in on the right choice; they are not dictionaries. Even thesauruses laid out in dictionary form only give closely related words, not necessarily exact matches.

2— Don’t assume that you know the correct meanings of all the words you think you know. In today’s world, more and more I find words being misused or their meanings misunderstood.

3— Be careful that your word choices fit the setting and the characters.

4— Make sure that your adjectives are the right ones for the noun they’re modifying.

These should all be obvious rules for writers, especially if you are an indie author and don’t hire an outside editor to check your work. As an editor, when I find words I believe are misused, I often check them out just to be sure I don’t fall in this trap, either.


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