We Don’t Want None of Your High-Falutin’ Kind Around Here: Abusing the Thesaurus

Ah, the thesaurus. Have you ever taken the time to just page through a copy? So many beautiful words! Roget’s 21st Century Thesaurus has fifty-one synonyms for the word “write” alone – such gems as “chalk,” “transcribe,” and “formulate.” The same thesaurus lists twenty-three ways to describe “controversy.” Forty-four terms exist for “literature.” And a whopping fifteen separate entries describe every permutation of the word “take,” each with its own set of synonyms.

The nobility gossiping about Abel.If, like most writers, you love words, then a book or website full of synonyms can make you a bit heady. Why say, “The nobility did not accept Abel as a member because of his boasting,” when you can say “The patricians considered Abel a parvenu because of his rodomontade”? Why say, “Barnum tended to laziness and considered deserting his post,” when you can say, “Barnum tended to faineance and considered tergiversation”?

Why shouldn’t you? Well, honestly, because doing so makes you sound pretentious and leads to what is known as “purple” prose.

Wikipedia defines purple prose as “prose text that is so extravagant, ornate, or flowery as to break the flow and draw excessive attention to itself.”

As I’ve said before, your number one goal in writing words is to sound natural. You essentially want readers to become so immersed in your words that they forget that they’re reading at all. To that end, any words or turns of speech that you use that fit the definition of purple prose sound contrived and unnatural.

More to the point, they annoy the reader. When you write such productions as “The caliginous water reflected the assassin’s lugubrious visage back to him,” you give the impression that you’re really, really impressed with your own vocabulary and want to show it off.

In some writing classes, such as media writing, you learn that you should write for an audience of about an eighth-grade reading level. If you pay attention to the average news story, you’ll notice that most of them do this. This advice is, however, controversial, with others believing that you should not talk down to your readers.

I personally think that you can use everyday words without “talking down” to readers. As I wrote in my last article, you should always use the most precise word – but never use a word simply for the sake of how impressive-sounding it is. Does “saturnine” really exactly describe Detective Barebones or would “gloomy” convey the same impression? Do you really need to say that Hiberna “circumambulated” or would “wandered” mean the same thing?

Use a thesaurus, whether a book or a website, but don’t abuse it. A good rule of thumb: if you’re grinning to yourself over how smart your sentence sounds, then you probably overdid it. Pare that same sentence back to simple (but exact) words, and if the “smart” sentence is bad in comparison – kill it, even if it kills you.

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