Michael Eriksson
A Swede in Germany
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When to use a thesaurus

I have repeatedly seen the claim that a thesaurus is a good way of “sounding smarter” or “more sophisticated”. My take is radically different: Anyone who does so, is doing both himself and his readers a disservice, leaving him with a text that is harder to read and may well mean something different from what he intended. (Notably, the matches in a thesaurus are often only approximate, or correct only with regard to one aspect of the original word: I recall one episode of the TV series “Friends” where the nit-witted Joey Tribiani used a thesaurus to write an impossible-to-understand letter signed “Baby-Kangaroo Tribiani”...)

From my POV, a thesaurus has the following legitimate uses:

  1. Finding a word that is less “sophisticated” and/or more likely to be understood and accepted by the intended readers.

  2. Finding a word that better matches the intended nuances of meaning than the original word.

  3. Avoiding endless repetitions of one particular word by use of synonyms.

Outside of the area of writing, I would additionally consider a thesaurus a legitimate means of learning new words; however, I have some doubts that this use is a good idea—an encyclopedia or ordinary dictionary will often be better suited.