The Thesaurus Bites Back: Three Ways That Synonym Lists Can Mangle Your Content Writing

English—perhaps more than any other language—abounds with synonyms.

But the true glory of English is that it’s a treasury of near-synonyms: words that almost mean the same, but express delicately different shades of meaning. Language experts say the words have the same denotation (general meaning) but differ in connotation (nuance). Color words provide a ready example: pink isn’t the same as peach, and both are distinct from cerise and rose.

If all you need are words for colors, you can just reach into a big box of crayons and read the labels. But your vocabulary demands are more expansive than that. Wouldn’t it be great if there were some sort of reference work that collects all sorts of synonyms?

Thesaurus Rex

The thesaurus is precisely that king of all reference books. Nowadays, of course, word lists have gone digital. With the proliferation of online resources, you can instantly scan the Internet for a set of synonyms and similar terms for any word you prefer not to use. Also, most of today’s word processors have a built-in thesaurus function. I still rely on my hardbound volume to give me a comprehensive list of alternatives when I can’t come up with just the right word on my own.

When you’re writing informative content for a business website, searching for “just the right word” can take up a hefty portion of your time. You want dynamic verbs and vivid adjectives to dance at your command. That will assure your content is memorable and earn you repeat readers. Writers understand that routine web content gets the point across, but flexing a rich vocabulary will let web content thunder. So we treat the thesaurus as our best friend.

Maybe too much. Over-reliance on the thesaurus can lead a writer astray in at least three crucial ways.

The Charlatan of the Ducks

As we noted, each synonym in a word list has its own subtle variation in meaning from the central concept. Woe to the unwary writer who grabs the wrong word in an attempt to add a bit of variety to his text. If he picks the wrong word, he’s revealed as a fool.

There’s an apocryphal story of a writer who submitted the sentence, “At the park, I could hear the charlatan of the ducks in the distance.” Why “charlatan”? Because the writer thought that “quack” was too humdrum a word, and his thesaurus suggested a fancier alternative that really wasn’t a synonym in this context.

Lesson #1: Context determines when two words are actually synonyms. In the wrong context, substituting one word for the other just brings chaos.

Thesaurus Wrecks

The range of choices when looking for “just the right word” overwhelms some writers. “What do I use here?” a writer may ask. “HazardProblemRisk, danger, or peril?”

Rather than make a choice and risk being told later that a better word was available, our writer opts to use ‘em all. Actual examples from recent content writing:

  • “This animosity results in one of two things happening: you either push your way in, creating even more anger, resentment and rage, or you’re stuck on the shoulder of the highway.” Hmm, both anger AND rage along with animosity?
  • “Pursuing a fair and just legal recovery does not mean that the bus driver was to blame for your crash.” Isn’t a just legal recovery necessarily a fair one?
  • “Without treatment, your toenail could become infected, sore, and painful.” I can deal with a painful nail, but one that’s also sore? That would be too much!
  • “Your inner being may be dominated by thoughts, images, memories, and flashbacks of the incident.” No comment.
  • “If you have been arrested then you are likely scared, confused, and worried.” You can see where this is going, right?

This isn’t merely redundant: it’s reminiscent of the worst sort of keyword-stuffed content writing. Once, content writers packed every synonym for “lawyer” or “doctor” into every page they wrote, until search engine algorithms learned to recognize this as an unnatural prose style. But clusters of synonyms like injured, wounded, and hurt were never helpful as keywords in the first place; today, they cloud over the writer’s message rather than illuminate it.

Lesson #2: Thoughtless repetition of synonyms becomes mindless drivel as website content. Each word you add to your piece should enhance the whole essay, not just help meet an arbitrary word-count requirement for your submission.

Too Smart for Your Own Good

Word lists also come into play when writers decide to impress readers by showing off their dazzling vocabularies. So far, okay: I like to meet new words. I think that it’s a gift when I’m compelled to look up a new word on occasion—say, perhaps, once a week. But flinging a barrage of new words at the reader in an attempt to hide that you have nothing new to say is toxic for content writing.

Rebecca Schuman, writing in Slate, reminds us how writing to impress goes wrong: “But college students—and, after they graduate, many working adults—have been socialized to believe they must ‘sound smart’ when they write… So when they read advanced, specialized writing and don’t understand it, they understandably equate completely incomprehensible with intelligent. Of course their natural reaction is to mimic the jargon they themselves don’t understand… What they don’t realize is that the smartest people express difficult concepts in everyday prose.”

If you’re packing your content with too many words outside the functional vocabulary of your readers, you’re just begging those readers to go elsewhere for information.

Lesson #3: As always, adapt your writing level to the needs (and limits) of your audience. That means you can push their vocabulary boundaries a little; most people recognize and understand far more words than they use in everyday life. But too many hard words reduce your work to a farrago of confusion. Don’t. Just… don’t.

What’s the Good Word?

Great content writing is more than just making sure the apostrophes are in the right places. In this continuing series of articles, we’re trying to refresh your approach to the craftsmanship of the writing process—a project that ranges from spelling and grammar to topic selection and diction. Read through the back articles on this website, and connect with Foster Web Marketing’s social media accounts for regular updates on the craft of content writing.

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