Monday, November 14, 2005

"Danger" is another word for "thesaurus"

A skilled writer/editor friend of mine has now started an e-mail newsletter to pass along her wisdom. Among her advice is this: "Repeating words makes for boring text. Luckily almost every word has at least one synonym. When you need to find a substitute word, reach for a thesaurus or visit www.thesaurus.com." It's sound advice, but it deserves a caveat. She does in fact give one, but I'll elaborate on the the theme:

A thesaurus can be a dangerous thing in the hands of a bad writer. Many is the lazy writer who has "paraphrased" quoted text in essays simply by running Microsoft Word's thesaurus and changing every word he or she could. They all got something different in the end, all right, but it was usually more different than it ought to have been.

Put another way, a vocabulary can be a precarious gadget in the talons of an immoral critic. Innumerable is the lethargic author who has "interpreted" extracted manuscript in treatises austerely by sprinting Microsoft Word's phrase book and shifting every remark he or she possibly will. They all dug up a thing poles apart in the closing stages, all accurate, other than it was customarily additional special than it have to to possess been.

You see the problem.

The problem with the thesaurus is that words are rarely exact synonyms. A writer must be aware that each may vary subtly in its nuances and shades of meaning. A literal example is that a thesaurus may list "navy", "indigo", "and "turquoise" as synonyms of blue, but they're all distinct kinds of blue with different tints, tones, and shades. In writing as in painting, artists benefit from having more colours on their palettes, but only if they choose from them precisely and judiciously according to a plan rather than randomly splattering the whole mess on the canvas.

4 Comments:

Blogger Scott said...

Why don't you shut up, you idiot?

11/14/2005 11:16:00 PM  
Blogger Ian said...

When George W. was attending Harvard, he wrote something about "lacerations streaming down the boy's face" in one of his papers. I've heard that the U.S. president is not very bright.

Anecdote #2: My grade six Language Arts teacher read the class a story about a boy who one ups his enemies through use of a thesaurus. I was so inspired by the story, I made my parents buy me my own thesaurus. It was a magical, but brief, period in my childhood. I'm glad to see you haven't lost the wonder, Pete.

11/15/2005 04:08:00 AM  
Blogger Peter Lynn said...

"Harvard" is not an exact synonym of "Yale", Ian.

11/15/2005 07:57:00 AM  
Blogger Ian said...

True, but Bush attended both.

11/15/2005 02:31:00 PM  

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