If there is one thing you don’t want to appear in life, it’s addlepated. And that’s why this week’s installment is about the proper way to use a thesaurus in order to choose the right words for your story. Is it better to use the word addlepated or is it better to use the word foolish? Or, as Professor Larry Donner asks in Throw Mama From the Train, was the night moist, hot and wet, humid, or sultry? It depends. What is the context? If you’re writing dialogue, the words you choose depend on the character speaking. What kind of character is he? Is he educated, in the military, a doctor, a dog-walker, a thief? And what are you writing? Do you write for children or a general adult audience? Is your writing considered literature? The right word depends on a lot of things.
Sometimes writers think that the Right Word is the most literate sounding word, or the one word they have never heard before, or the word with the most letters (younger writers tend to do this), or the one that sounds the most “intellectual.” They want to change “The brown bear ate Astrid” to read “The brown bear consumed Astrid,” just ’cause. This works okay, but there are pros and cons: there’s really nothing wrong with the word ate in this sentence, and, frankly, the word consumed tends to sound a bit clinical (just a bit though—the word masticated would sound worse). But either ate or consumed work, depending on the genre of the work or on the personality of your character (if you have her talking about Astrid).
But are all the synonyms offered under headwords in a thesaurus substitutable for the words they’re meant to replace? No. Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not make it an appropriate substitution. Let’s look at an example.
In The American Century Thesaurus, synonyms for the word LOUD (adj.) are as follows: (1). deafening, ear-splitting, booming, blaring, stentorian, thundering, thunderous, sonorous, noisy, clamorous, piercing, fortissimo (2). tawdry, garish, flashy, gaudy, tasteless, extravagant, showy, ostentatious, Colloq splashy, snazzy, jazzy.
Which of those words would you use in the following sentence?
Astrid spoke in a(n) ___ voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.
Some of you would play it safe and choose noisy. Others, wanting to add something a bit more interesting, might choose stentorian. And some of you, wanting to be totally different, wanting to fulfill that future agent’s request that you send her work with “a fresh voice,” might choose the word FORTISSIMO! That works, right? The word fortissimo is listed under the “first sense” grouping (indicated by the number “1” in parenthesis in the entry above), so it must be similar to the words noisy and stentorian, and therefore must be substitutable, yes? Let’s try it:
Astrid spoke in a fortissimo voice, startling the sleeping brown bear.
Merriam-Webster defines fortissimo as “very loud” and states it is a word used “in the direction of music.” Does it sound right in the sentence above? I think it might work if you’re writing comedy. It is definitely not the correct word to use if you’re being serious, though. In the latter case, the word fortissimo sounds silly at best. It is not the proper word given the context of the sentence.
Of course, you could do worse, you could choose a word from the “second sense” grouping (indicated by the number 2 in parenthesis in the entry above), and make a terrible mess altogether:
Astrid spoke in an gaudy voice and startled the sleeping brown bear.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines gaudy as “ostentatiously or tastelessly ornamented.”
So, gaudy doesn’t work at all in the sentence, and it’s no wonder the brown bear consumed Astrid.
Let’s try another:
Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent ____ to tickle the sleeping brown bear.
The American Century Thesaurus suggests you might use the words: desire, longing, craving, appetite, taste, stomach, sympathy, predilection, penchant, fancy, eagerness, enthusiasm, zeal, furor, or ardor under the headword INCLINATION. The words above are all listed in the same “sense” grouping. Because of this, many writers will at first believe they can ALL be substituted for inclination without an issue. But allow me to insert just two of those words into the sentence below, and you will see the problem.
Astrid, feeling playful, had a terribly imprudent (stomach)/(sympathy) to tickle the sleeping brown bear.
Even though both words entered in the sentence above are considered in the same sense grouping as longing and desire, they don’t work, do they? Just because a word is listed as a synonym under a headword does not mean the word must, in some way, be substitutable. So what word would you select? Personally, I’d choose the word “fancy” in this sentence; it hints at the child-like shenanigans for which the late Astrid obviously had a predilection, but you could also use the word desire or the word longing without looking silly at all.
The thesaurus is a wonderful tool, and playing with words, using different, fun words, is all a part of enjoying the writing life. But you must be careful. Every word in a thesaurus that’s been listed as a synonym for the word you’re trying to replace is not necessarily a good replacement, and can make you look
addlepated foolish if you’re not punctilious careful.
[THE AMERICAN CENTURY THESAURUS, Warner Books Paperback Edition by Lawrence Urdang, Inc. 1992, 1995 and THE MERRIAM-WEBSTER DICTINARY, New Edition, 2004]