LEO LEO: Literacy Education Online

How to Use a Thesaurus

As you look over the rough draft of your paper, you realize that you use the word "very" four times in one paragraph. Your roommate says it's time to consult the thesaurus to find another word to replace the one you have overused. But before you select a word, there are some things you need to know.

What exactly is a thesaurus?

A thesaurus is a collection of synonyms (words which have basically the same meaning) and antonyms (words which have basically opposite meanings).

A thesaurus comes in one of two easy to use forms.

In dictionary form, words are in alphabetical order, so you look "very" up under V.

In index form, words are classified by meaning, and you would have to look up "very" in the index at the back of the book. The index would guide you to the page or pages where "very" appears.

Once you have the word before you, you must decide which synonym to use.

Words have different connotations--that is, different implied meanings--and if you use a word you're not familiar with, you may be saying something that you didn't intend to say. A basic rule to remember is that if you don't know the word, don't use it!!

Consider the words "slender" and "skinny." Both words are found under the heading thin in the thesaurus, but "slender" has positive connotations, while "skinny" does not. If you write

"The slender man walked down the street."


"The skinny man walked down the street."

your mind sees two different images, even though the words are similar.

A thesaurus is a valuable tool, if used correctly. Stick to words you are familiar with, and remember that a longer word is only that--longer, not necessarily better.

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© 2000 The Write Place
LEO:  Literacy Education Online

The print handout was revised and then redesigned for the Web by Thomas Tate for the Write Place, St. Cloud State University, St. Cloud, Minnesota, and may be copied for educational purposes only. If you copy this document, please include our copyright notice and the name of the writer; if you revise it, please add your name to the list of writers.

Last update: 2 June 2000

URL: http://leo.stcloudstate.edu/style/thesaurus.html