A thesaurus: friend or foe?

A thesaurus is a book or an online resource which has synonyms for common words. It can be both useful and dangerous in writing.

It is tempting to use a thesaurus to introduce variety into writing. To avoid using the same word twice in the same sentence, paragraph or page, you check a thesaurus for a synonym – an alternative or substitute.

But if you choose the wrong synonym, you may be changing the intended meaning. English can be very complex with subtle variations in meaning, as a good dictionary can show. Consider these pairs of similar verbs:

  • diminish and reduce
  • retain and maintain
  • represent and resemble
  • accomplish and achieve.

Often it is appropriate, and best, to repeat the same word if that is the best or most precise word for the context.

Be careful when using a thesaurus to paraphrase text to avoid plagiarism. If you are unsure how to reword someone else’s work and retain the meaning, it may be better to use quote marks and provide the source to indicate the words are a direct quote from a reference.

Used thoughtfully, a thesaurus can be a friend of good writing, but take care it is not a foe.

For editing and writing inquiries, contact me at rhdaniels@bigpond.com

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