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Million Dollar Words

With a Catch

By Elizabeth Hall


ne of my biggest pet peeves is repetitive writing. Hearing the same three words over and over again in an essay never fails to make my nose scrunch because I know there are so many endless ways to say one thing. The English language has contains over 170,000 words and new ones are being created every day, so why are people so determined to use “say” and “good” within their writing?

Over the years, I’ve discovered many tips and tricks to help me improve my writing skills. Of these, my favorite discovery finding has always been the thesaurus. A thesaurus is a book (or website) that offers a list of synonyms, related words, and sometimes antonyms for a word. I love using a thesaurus while I’m writing because it opens up a whole new world of words, but when I recommend using a thesaurus to anyone, I run into a problem.

I’ve found that many people use a thesaurus without understanding or fully knowing the words they are replacing. You can’t choose the first synonym written on the page and expect your writing to sound smarter because you will only end up incorrectly using a word. While it can be a great tool to expand your vocabulary, using one incorrectly improperly can ruin the clarity of your writing. The sentence below is simple and gets the point across.

My grandma makes great pasta, but she will not tell me the recipe.

Simple or compound sentences aren’t always bad, but they can be boring and lack emotion. Using a thesaurus, we can exchange the words with exciting new synonyms to get the second sentence below.

My maternal forebear fabricates inconceivable vermicelli, saving she authorize nevermore chronicle me the methodology.

With almost every word changed, the sentence becomes confusing and hard to read. The content of the sentence is lost within words that don’t make sense. While each word changed is technically a synonym, those altered are not the best to communicate the desired meaning. This sentence isn’t better than the first one. It isn’t boring, but the complex language makes it difficult to understand. The syntax (how words are supposed to be arranged in s sentence) is completely thrown off. If we alter the syntax of this new sentence to make it easier to read more coherent, we get this third one.

My maternal forebear fabricates inconceivable vermicelli, saving she authorize nevermore to chronicle the methodology to me.

Even changing the syntax by moving and adding words, this sentence still makes no sense. This sentence doesn’t sound smarter with the thesaurus, but loony nonsensical. Using the thesaurus correctly, we can get a sentence that seems a little more interesting, but still contains the original meaning of the sentence.

My grandma makes magnificent pasta, but she refuses to tell me the recipe.

While only two words were changed from the first sentence there is much more emotion for the reader and the original clarity is intact. The words are stronger, but they don’t distract from the content. Everyone’s writing can use would benefit from editing in many a multitude of ways, but sometimes bigger is not better. Words like “say” and “good” mentioned earlier aren’t bad, and they have their place.

A thesaurus isn’t supposed to be a band-aid fix for repetition, and you should always feel free to use a dictionary to look up the definitions of words you don’t know. Synonyms can add spice to bland writing and are great to use as long as they don’t overtake the meat of the sentence. Next time you think about changing a word, look at the sentence and the paragraph it’s in, and ask yourself what you gain by changing the word. If your sentence still retains its original content, but has more emotion or less repetition, then go for it! However, if you change too many words and lose the content essence of the original sentence, then you might want to leave the original sentence alone.


Elizabeth Hall is a junior English education major, and you can meet with her this fall in-person on Wednesdays at 7:45 p.m. and online Zoom on Thursdays at 3 p.m.


The Speer Writing Center will be open until Dec. 8, 2020. If you’d like to schedule a session, please email [email protected]. We hope to see you soon!

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