Thesaurus Abuse

Recently I heard someone say we should never use a word from a thesaurus we do not already know. It’s the perfect tool to encourage a bit of vocabulary review, to allow an “Aha” moment: “Yes, that’s just the word.”

As an author, and as a preacher, one of my favorite and most necessary tools is a thesaurus. In creating a publishable or preachable four-pages (1000 words), I will open the thesaurus forty or fifty times.

Upgrading words is one of the privileges and challenges of any wordsmith. We should want to do better than pretty. So, we use a thesaurus to consider other options: exquisite, appealing, lovely, gorgeous, and dazzling. I also open a thesaurus

  • To help with alliteration,
  • To avoid clichés and
  • To circumvent repetition of a word.

Some people misuse this mighty tool. They want to sound smarter than maybe they are (yet), so they locate a two-dollar word to replace their ten-cent term. I’ve been reviewing such a book. Here are words I’ve looked up in a dictionary as I’ve read the first fifty pages:









Here’s my problem with his otherwise excellent memoir: He’s showing off.

I have a pretty decent vocabulary myself, and I have come across two instances when he employs the wrong word. Incorrect.   A mistake. Overreaching. Showing off.

When someone uses utilize instead of use, Martha Barnette and Grant Barrett, A Way with Word podcast hosts (, say that person is being pretentious.

he first rule of writing is to write what you know. Keep reading. Keep learning.

Categories: Writing | Tags: , , , , , , , | 10 Comments

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10 thoughts on “Thesaurus Abuse

  1. Pamela Greenlaw

    Sometimes a $2 word is used rather than the entirely suitable 10 cent one is common usage. So that particular word actually is not one of pretention.

    Your example of the word “utilize” is one such word. I use the word utilize a lot, as it has become more popularly, hmm, to avoid repetition, employed. My unhumble opinion!

  2. Pam, common usage does not make it better for someone who cares about words. Irregardless is commonly used and considered appropriate by some folks, but I don’t want to use it. Irrespective is a far better word.

  3. Pam, the illustration on A Way with Words was from an employee whose colleagues were overusing utilize. Could I utilize your stapler? They said it was pretentious, and sometimes it is. Sometimes it’s not.

  4. Patsy Pennington

    I thought utilize was another “trendy” expression…….like we now have to “reach out” to someone instead of calling them.

    • I guess one of my points, loving words as I do, Patsy, is that we get lazy. Why do we always grab lunch? Why can’t we go eat lunch together? Just a thought.

  5. J. Earl

    Welcome back! Please do a similar blog on common grammar violations. I cringe when I hear “for you and I”, she “don’t”, etc. Frightening how quickly our language is being compromised . A recent English major told me form doesn’t matter….only communication.

  6. Earl, You should listen to A Way with Words. Great folks who love language, and sometimes they surprise me. They let things slide a regional or dialects I think are just plain wrong. Agreeance instead of agreement! But they have good justifications. And sometimes, as the utilize illustration, they blister the misuse of the word.

  7. JEarl

    Perhaps the changes (abuses ) are encouraged by our desire for speedy communication as seen in texting, etc. I am guilty of using too many shortcuts.

  8. tedardsf

    The idea that “form doesn’t matter” may apply to superficial communication, but correct usage and punctuation matter greatly whenever one tries to discuss a complex idea or describe anything accurately. Incorrect usage will at the least distract a reader, sometimes to the extent that the writer’s point is lost entirely.

    • Well said, Frank. I can be as casual as anyone, and there’s a time for that. And since I have a legitimate doctorate, I know how to do research and write for academic purposes. Who you are writing for and what you are writing makes a difference. I once heard someone say about modern art that if the artist can draw a horse, then he can cut it up and move the body parts wherever he/she chooses to. But he the artist can’t draw a horse, don’t smear paint on a canvas and call it a horse.

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