About Thesaurus

How to Use a Thesaurus

or How Not to Misuse Your Treasure

by Owen Fourie

Beware! A thesaurus can be treacherous if it is misused. This article will help you to use it correctly.

Thesaurus. It reminds me of brontosaurus—the very large herbivorous dinosaur. This is why I have often referred to my thesaurus as my prehistoric dictionary. 🙂

This saurus has nothing to do with the Greek sauros meaning lizard. It is a Latin word taken from the Greek thesauros meaning treasury or treasure.

Rather than being a prehistoric dictionary, a thesaurus is a treasure or a storehouse of the knowledge of words, especially of synonyms and antonyms.

As with all treasure, there is the temptation to be greedy. You must beware of misusing it, and you should learn to use it sparingly.

Here are the answers to four questions about this treasure.

1. What is a thesaurus good for?

When you find that you are using a particular word repetitively in an essay, you should search for a synonym in your thesaurus.

If you have in mind an idea for which you are lacking the appropriate word, this tool could be useful. Simply use a word that is as close as possible to a description of your idea and see if there is a better word for it.

Usually, you will find antonyms alongside the synonyms, and these can also help you to find the right word or a better way of expressing your idea.

As you use your thesaurus in this way, you will find that you are also building your vocabulary.

2. Are all thesauruses alike?

Thesauri are available

  • as printed books;
  • as tools in word processors;
  • as electronic devices (search on line for “electronic thesaurus”);
  • as online tools (search on line for “online thesaurus”).

The two main kinds are

  • the A-Z thesaurus organized alphabetically like a dictionary;
  • the Roget-type, a classification system in which words are arranged in six primary classes, and each class consists of several divisions and further sections within those divisions. More about this in a moment.

3. How should you use a thesaurus?

In any thesaurus, read its introductory and explanatory material. This will help you to understand how it works.

An A-Z thesaurus

  • lists words in alphabetical order like a dictionary;
  • defines some words briefly;
  • lists synonyms for each word;
  • lists antonyms, too, in many instances.

A Roget-type thesaurus has a classification system, as I mentioned a moment ago.

This might sound complicated, but actual use is made easier via an extensive alphabetical index.

  • Find your word in the index.
  • Note the number next to it.
  • Use that number to find your word in its class, division, and section.
  • Look for synonyms (or antonyms) that agree with the part of speech required: a noun for a noun, a verb for a verb, an adjective for an adjective.

With a bit of practice, you will soon find your way around this type of thesaurus, and you’ll learn to appreciate its benefits.

4. Why should you be careful when you use a thesaurus?

Take care when you select a synonym.

Ask yourself these questions:

  • Do I know the exact meaning of this synonym?
  • What is the meaning of this word according to my dictionary?
  • Does it really fit what I am saying?
  • Will it change the meaning of what I am trying to say?
  • Does it sound right as the replacement?

Using a synonym that might have other implied meanings could result in your saying something that you did not intend.

Be aware that your use of a thesaurus, especially the misuse of it, will be easily detected by your instructor.

It’s good to use a thesaurus as long as you use it correctly and without overdoing it. Too many thesaurus-found synonyms in one essay could have an adverse effect.

Many items in free article directories by writers whose first language is not English suffer with such overuse and misuse.

A simple example of misuse

I enjoy using my thesaurus. There is something about finding new words that excites me and makes me enjoy what I am doing. If you develop the habit of using a thesaurus, you will also learn to enjoy writing essays.

Help! At this point, you should not be enjoying the word enjoy. It needs to be replaced.

Off you go to your Roget-type thesaurus.

In its index, you find enjoy with the number 377, which has to do with physical pleasure. You realize that the words listed there are not quite what would describe your enjoyment.

There is another number, 777, which speaks of possession, but this idea does not work for you.

At 827, you find the idea of pleasure again but more than physical pleasure. You need two words to replace the second and third enjoy and so you rewrite as follows:

I enjoy using my thesaurus. There is something about finding new words that excites me and makes me delight in what I am doing. If you develop the habit of using a thesaurus, you will also learn to luxuriate in writing essays.

Ouch! The first replacement—delight in—is fair, but, really, the second replacement is unsuitable. This is where you need to use your dictionary to know what luxuriate means. I doubt that it can have any association with essays.

Bear in mind that it is not always necessary to find a replacement word. If you can rephrase your writing to eliminate repetitive words, that is a good way to go.

Enough said! I need to luxuriate in a cup of coffee. H’m! I don’t think so. Where’s my thesaurus?…


What benefits have you experienced in using a thesaurus? Which kind do you prefer—the A-Z type or the Roget-type? What are your reasons for your choice?

Here are more articles to help you with English words, grammar, and essay writing.

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  1. […] not fall into the trap of simply choosing the next word in a thesaurus, because synonyms all have nuances and you want the right shade of […]

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