The Thesaurus: Use or Shun?

“Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word.  There are no exceptions to this rule.”–Stephen King

“The difference between the almost-right word and the right word is really a large matter–it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.”–Mark Twain

It’s not clear that these quotes from two fine American authors are antithetical.  I believe that Mr. King would agree with Mr. Twain that the right word is preferable to the almost-right word.  At the same time, he condemns the use of a thesaurus to divine that word.  Presumably that means that he carries all the right words in his head or, if a word is not in his head, it can’t be right.  Mr. Twain says nothing about a thesaurus, but he is emphatic about finding the right word, leading one to conclude that a writer should consult whatever source is necessary to find it.

I have a well-worn thesaurus (Oxford Compact Thesaurus, 3rd Edition) on the desk beside my computer.  I believe that every word is different from its fellows, though the variance be infinitesimally small.  All those words may or may not be in my head, but my capacity to recall them is not what it used to be.  Fortunately, something usually tells me that another word, a word that I know but can’t dredge up, is closer to the meaning that I’m trying to convey.  That’s when I open my thesaurus.  Also, especially during the endless revision process, I sometimes find myself repeating words, a lazy, annoying tic that would aggravate my readers as well.  For instance, I’ve used the word “word” in this post fifteen times already (add two more).  If I can’t come up with a better word on my own, I consult the thesaurus.  Unfortunately, in the case of “word,” as I’m using it here, there’s no real substitute.  On occasion, none of the words in the thesaurus says what I want it to, and I have to settle for the one closest to what I want to say or (rarely) make one up.

In short, a thesaurus is a tool, like a dictionary or style guide.  If you need it, use it.



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