Sunday, February 27, 2011

To the thesaurus, or not to the thesaurus?

Whenever I go to write an adverb, I immediately stop. Instead, I slap the adverb off my brain. Then I go to www.thesaurus.com and type in my original verb. I find a stronger verb that sufficiently replaces both my original verb and the adverb I was going to use, and I rewrite my sentence.

Some writers have sworn off the thesaurus because they feel it promotes phony writing. I agree, but I think it depends on how you use the thesaurus. I don't use a thesaurus to look up elaborate synonyms. I use the thesaurus to look up adequate alternatives. In other words, the replacement word I choose is still within my voice and style, it's just more definitive.

For example, I began to write the following sentence:
At first, Dr. Young severely balked at the idea.
See the adverb (severely)? The fact that my brain wanted to modify balked means it's not the correct verb.

So, I went to thesaurus.com and plugged in my verb, balked. A list of alternatives popped up. I rewrote my sentence using an alternate word (not an elaborate replacement that changes my voice and narration).
At first, Dr. Young resisted the idea.
That's much better. You may not think so, but for my voice and my style, that sentence is a good sentence. I like it. I've got a subject, a verb, and a direct object.

True, I have a prepositional phrase (at first) that technically acts as an adverb by placing my verb (resisted) within a frame of time. But it does not alter my verb's meaning. My prepositional phrase suggests that Dr. Young may be about to change his mind, which is exactly what I want to communicate.

Oh sure, there were other words to choose from. But they did not represent who I am as a writer. If I wanted to sound like a different writer I could have written any of the sentences below.
At first, Dr. Young demurred the idea.
Demurred is so foreign to me I don't even know if I'm using it correctly, even after a visit to www.dictionary.com.
At first, Dr. Young objected to the idea.
I don't like the prepositional phrase this verb forces. It trips up my tongue because my preposition starts with nearly the same sound my verb ends with.
At first, Dr. Young recoiled at the idea.
Recoiled is too strong for the context of this sentence. He didn't overreact to the idea, he just reacted negatively--at first.

So, despite the advice of many professional writers, I say don't lose your thesaurus, just know when to use it, and when not to.

For example, what if I was content with my adverb use, but I wanted a bigger, better noun for my direct object? Now it gets messy, and this is where we can see some truly bad writing.
At first, Dr. Young severely balked at the hypothesis.
Or, what if I realize there's something wrong with the word severely, but instead of recognizing that it must be removed, I look for a synonym for the adverb? Now I've got a real mess.
At first, Dr. Young acutely balked at the hypothesis.
Wait, I'm not done. First is such a plain word, as long as we have our thesaurus open, let's improve it.
At its inception, Dr. Young acutely balked at the hypothesis.
Now it's getting really ugly. Perhaps I should return to my original plan.
At first, Dr. Young resisted the idea.
There, I'll sleep much better tonight. How about you?

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