To Thesaurus, or No?

David Foster Wallace says every writer needs a Thesaurus, Dictionary and Usage Dictionary by his side:

I urge my students to get a usage dictionary… To recognize that you need a usage dictionary, you have to be paying a level of attention to your own writing that very few people are doing… A usage dictionary is [like] a linguistic hard drive… For me the big trio is a big dictionary, a usage dictionary, a thesaurus — only because I cannot retain and move nimbly around in enough of the language not to need these extra sources….

…As a teacher, about 90% of my job is getting the students to understand why they might need one.

Strunk and White in “The Elements of Style” agree on having the same tools handy, and White is probably the best essayist I know (here’s a hilarious obituary he did of his dog, which highlights his superpowers).

But Stephen King goes rogue on this one:

“You want to write a story? Fine. Put away your dictionary, your encyclopedias, your World Almanac, and your thesaurus. Better yet, throw your thesaurus into the wastebasket. The only things creepier than a thesaurus are those little paperbacks college students too lazy to read the assigned novels buy around exam time. Any word you have to hunt for in a thesaurus is the wrong word. There are no exceptions to this rule.”

So who’s right? I try to go in between on this one. If a word is rummaging around in my brain, I lean on my thesaurus. If not, I avoid it. I tend to think the right word is the natural one, and words I look up in a thesaurus make me embarrassed to read my stuff aloud, which is a telltale sign that the style is off. But sometimes I know the perfect word, and I need some help to find it. Those are the golden sentences.

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Nicholas McDonald is a blogger, pastor, and author of the book "Faker: How to Be Real When You're Tempted to Fake it." He studied creative writing and communication at Oxford University and Olivet Nazerene University, and received his M.Div from Gordon Conwell Theological Seminary. He currently resides in Lexington, NC, with his wife and two boys, Caleb and Owen.

One Comment

  1. I agree with, concur, accede and subscribe to, buy into, go along with (as well as side with) and generally am of the same mind with you regarding your take on using a thesaurus.

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