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July 25, 2013
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Every now and then, I see one of those lists going round, be it on Tumblr, shared on blogs, or whatever.  You know, those lists; the ones that go on for eight miles listing ten synonyms for dozens of common words.

I hate those lists.  In the wrong hands, they often do more harm than good.  And in the right hands, they‘re just sort of useless.

There's one going around I do rather like, because it points out the idiocy of these lists.  At the top, it says, 'instead of whispered, consider…' and lists off a whole bunch of words.  One of those words is 'insinuated'.   And the very first response to that list? 'Aye lil mama, let me insinuate in ya ear.'  Now, that sentence sounds utterly ridiculous, because whisper and insinuate do not mean the same thing.  Not even close.  But these lists are often rife thesaurus copypasta like this that upon closer inspection make very little sense.

Let's take the word 'got' for a moment.  It's a fairly flabby word, as words go.  But if you plug that into thesaurus.com[1], you get the following synonyms:

access, accomplish, acquire, annex, attain, bag, bring, bring in, build up, buy into, buy off, buy out, capture, cash in on, chalk up, clean up, clear, come by, compass, cop, draw, earn, educe, effect, elicit, evoke, extort, extract, fetch, gain, get hands on, glean, grab, have, hustle, inherit, land, lock up, make, make a buy, make a killing, net, obtain, parlay, pick up, procure, pull, rack up, realize, reap, receive, score, secure, snag, snap up, snowball, succeed to, take, wangle, win


Man, that's a lot of alternative ways to say 'got.'  We'll never have to use that flabby, empty word again!

But let's think about that for a moment.  What about, "Tony got a phone call from the headmaster"?  You could always rephrase that so the headmaster is the subject, rather than Tony.  "The headmaster phoned Tony."  We no longer have 'got' in that sentence.  But we want Tony to be the subject of this sentence, so that the verb applies to him.  "Tony captured a phone call from the headmaster"?  No, that's not right.  "Tony educed a phone call from the headmaster"?  No, I know.  It's definitely "Tony accomplished a phone call from the headmaster."  He inherited the phone call.  He extorted it.  Locked it up?

None of those make any real sense.  'Receive' is on that list, would actually work in this context, and sounds better than 'got'.  "Tony received a phone call from the headmaster."  But for one word that does work, there are literally dozens more that don't.

I don't recall who said it originally, but it's a quote I've used before in another one of these things.  Never use a large word where a small word will suffice.  If you describe something large as 'infinite,' you no longer have a word to describe something which truly is infinite.  On a slightly smaller scale, imagine a character coming across a German shepherd, and describing the dog as enormous.  Well, what happens when she later comes across a bull mastiff, or a great Dane?  How do you convey a larger size?  You've already used enormous to describe the smaller dog, so now you have to think of something even bigger than enormous.  Which is a shame, because that word might have better applied to the great Dane.

William Faulkner and Ernest Hemingway once had a mild dirt-slinging contest[2], as writers are sometimes wont.  After Faulkner insulted the size and scope of Hemingway's vocabulary, Hemingway responded by asking if Faulkner thought "big emotions come from big words?"  To which the answer is no, of course they don't.  Your Freshman English teacher might have told you that if you're not making your reader reach for the dictionary, then your writing isn't strong enough.  Well, I don't know about you, but if I have to keep reaching for the dictionary, I'm not going to be reading your story for much longer because I don't like having to keep stopping to look things up just to understand what's going on.  I'm going to get annoyed and find something else to read that doesn't sound so pretentious.


But this isn't to say that you shouldn't ever use big words.  If you know how to use a word correctly, and can insert it into the prose in a way that a reader should be able to reasonably infer the meaning from the context, then use the word.  But if you're picking up the thesaurus just to keep from using 'said' all the time, you're only going to wind up with the verbal equivalent of a clown car.  And no-one takes clown cars seriously.


1. thesaurus.com/browse/got?s=t
2. flavorwire.com/188138/the-30-h…
Use of the thesaurus may be hazardous to your readers' mental health.
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Daily Deviation

Given 2014-05-01
ML-Larson offers straightforward advice on word usage in Synonyms, the Thesaurus, and You. ( Featured by neurotype )
:iconzalaria:
Zalaria Featured By Owner Dec 1, 2014  Student General Artist
I think I may have fallen into the thesaurus trap a few times xD
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:iconremeron-nap:
remeron-nap Featured By Owner May 3, 2014
i was guilty of this when i began writing (still kind of in that stage); showed a piece of mine to a teacher and she was like "erm. wtf is this here?"

when i use a thesaurus now i usually combine it with other resources- multiple dictionaries, using wikipedia and other websites of that nature to figure out context (depends on what you're looking up though), generally just reading around and seeing how the word is used and what it means directly/indirectly. sometimes i stumble upon other words that i can use with some adjustments to sentence structure.
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:iconlibbykeppen:
LibbyKeppen Featured By Owner May 3, 2014  Hobbyist General Artist
THANK YOU UGH  This is so important.
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:iconsavvyred:
SavvyRed Featured By Owner May 1, 2014  Student Writer
I think we should appreciate the time and effort that it took societies without computers to make dictionaries, thesauruses, and encyclopedias.  Often, they would have to spend years and years (sometimes their whole lives) gathering information.  Language used to be a lot more fluid as far as "correct" English (or any other language) goes.  Often pretentious people complain that Shakespeare would be disgusted at how much bad grammar and incorrect spellings exist in the Internet.  In Shakespeare's time, there WAS no correct standard spelling or grammar in the English language.  I bet if he had a thesaurus, he'd be thrilled.

In addition, thesauruses can expand vocabularies if used properly.  Sometimes you can use a thesaurus and a dictionary together and learn something new.  The connotation might be a bit new to you, but at least you know what it means, and you will eventually figure it out as you hear people use it (now that you understand it more).

This is my 8th year in university, and I completed my entire English major.  There are times when I do use thesauruses, but I make sure just to use words I already know but didn't think to use at the time.  In addition, thesauruses are very good for poetry.  Poetry doesn't always rhyme, so sometimes it can be nice to find a word that makes your poetry flow better because poetry is definitely based on word choice.

Also, big words are NOT necessarily more advanced than shorter words.  For example, I just said the word "necessarily."  Most people fluent in English know what that means, and I'm sure plenty of children do as well.  But what about the word "ibex"?  Do you know what that means?  A lot of people don't (which is I'm always using it in hangman).  It's a species of animal that is similar to a goat.

Your example of "Tony got a call from the headmaster" is not really a very good sentence to use.  "Tony got a call from the headmaster" is in passive voice, and "The headmaster phoned Tony" sounds a lot better.  I'm not really sure why "Tony" has to be the subject of the sentence rather than "the headmaster," but even that shows some complication.  In the United States, nobody ever uses the words like  "headmaster," "W.C.," "rubbish," "bloke," and many other British colloquialisms.  Some people claim that American English is not "correct" English, yet I would argue that it is just as valid as the language of any other country.  Trust me, I did a project on one million years of language in Spain (and I did it in Spanish).  If we focused so much on being correct rather than saying what feels right and adapting it into the culture, we'd just be monkeys yelling the same word at each other because we'd be too afraid to say anything "wrong."  Language grows from cultural exchange and development, not isolation and rigid rules.
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:iconbatmanwithbunnyears:
BatmanWithBunnyEars Featured By Owner May 1, 2014   General Artist
Great article!  Sometimes I use the thesaurus when there's a more suitable word on the tip of my tongue, but that's it.  I don't think many people use big words to sound smart anymore, since the people who are most respected for their intellect are the ones who can express complicated ideas in simple terms to make them more accessible.  The use of simple language also conveys honesty, since you're not trying to hide BS in a flurry of big words.

Personally, I think you shouldn't get hung up on individual words too much unless you're writing a poem that needs a certain rhyme and rhythm.  Otherwise, it's best to focus on the ideas you want to convey and let the words fall where they may.
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:iconliliwrites:
LiliWrites Featured By Owner May 1, 2014  Hobbyist Writer
THANK YOU! :D I've been saying this for years.
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:icontie-dye-flag:
tie-dye-flag Featured By Owner May 1, 2014  Hobbyist Digital Artist
What do you call a dinosaur that has a large vocabulary?
A "thesaurus"! 
:rofl:

Puns aside, thank you for writing this, it is very useful!
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:icon666pyrocharmedgirl:
666pyrocharmedgirl Featured By Owner May 1, 2014
Oh my god finally someone else realizes this! I see this all the time on tumblr an it's so annoying, and as a writer I can attest that even words with less-broad definitions as 'got' any old synonym won't work, because it doesn't sound right.
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:iconx-jazzy-b-real-x:
x-Jazzy-B-Real-x Featured By Owner May 1, 2014
He INHERITED the phone call! :rofl:

I did this a lot throughout middle and high school when my very first creative writing teacher told me my vocabulary "wasn't intelligent enough," and that the "make the person reach for a dictionary" approach was the right thing to do since I just wanted to write poetic emotions in prose all the time. Insecurity still at the back of my mind, I still struggle with making balances, but I tried to just choose using "big words" when I knew I sincerely liked using them, especially if there was a certain tone being applied. I agree with Blacksand459 too, the majority of this generation has also lowered its standards and seems to prefer what's dumbed down even so.
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:iconcypherfox:
Cypherfox Featured By Owner May 1, 2014
...and this is why Roget, when framing his categorization, used a hierarchy of conceptual references rather than strict alphabetical order.  The idea was for the craftsman to follow the line of meaning and be brought to words that related to it.  Not that it could be used as a trivial replacement.  It is, and always has been, wrong to use a thesaurus purely to reduce repetition.  Rather when you feel a word does not have the shade of meaning you are looking for, to find a word whose shades are closer.

But that doesn't stop millions of people from abusing it without understanding.
On the other hand, it is hardly possible to find two words having in all respects the same meaning, and being therefore interchangeable; that is, admitting of being employed indiscriminately, the one or the other, in all their applications.

--  From the Introduction of Roget's Thesaurus, 3rd edition
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