One Writer’s Treasure is Another Writer’s Trash

Writers, throw away your thesaurus. Yes, you read that correctly. You need a dictionary, but Roget’s collection of synonyms, temptingly gathered together like so many loose women on the docks is a good way to catch VD–verbal disease. Consider the following:

Personally, yours truly made a break for the nest egg to countenance a liquid measure of formula.

Ridiculous, right? Except that sentence is the result of hunting through the treasury (the root meaning of thesaurus) to puff up this sentence:

I went to the store to buy a quart of milk.

Of course, it’s silly. But I see writers–mostly college students, but others, too–looking for a fifty dollar word when a five cent word will do. We all want to look smart. And we need to vary our words and sentence structures to keep the reader from falling asleep. But if you grab some uppity group of letters just because it sounds more sophisticated than a one or two syllable word, you’re likely to go astray, particularly if you don’t check the definition. This is because while English has words that are closely related, in most cases, each one has its own elements that it alone means.

Mark Twain once said that the difference between the right word and the wrong word is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug. Don’t let the thesaurus strike you out, or you’ll annoy me.

Cross-posted at English 301: Reading and Writing.

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