All writers need to use a thesaurus


For any writer, no matter whether or not you are new or seasoned, one thing we all have to take into account when writing a book is the use of appropriate words. There is always a danger of a writer opting for a limited vocabulary.

Instead of using certain words simply because your are familiar with them and likely use them whenever conversing in you’re daily life, believe me it’s far better to make use of a Thesaurus. Always be on the lookout for acceptable alternatives.

What do I mean by this? To illustrate my point the following part of a sentence in a book I am currently re-reading by one well-known author, quite literally puts words into the mouth of his chief character, which simply were not in use during the time period the story is set in. “They came swarming downstream, transports filled with palace servants and slaves and all their accoutrements and paraphernalia.”

To begin with the book is set during the time of the Pharaohs in ancient Egypt. Words like accoutrements and paraphernalia were not in use.

Let us take a look at paraphernalia first. Here is its definition: miscellaneous articles, especially the equipment needed for a particular activity. Using it in the book concerned is incorrect as it didn’t enter the English language until the 17th century, making it unknown in two thousand five hundred BCE.

Ok fine so it wasn’t in use back then clever clogs. So what? Who cares? How about using a word like trappings in its place?

You could, but once again it wasn’t in use at the time. It first appeared during the period of language development known as Late Middle English. What the author should have considered using is the word belongings. In this case it is highly appropriate as it refers to ‘movable possessions’. More importantly it is a word which has been around forever.

Now for accoutrements. Once again here is its definition: an additional item of dress or equipment. It sounds acceptable right? Not in this case. It didn’t appear until the 16th century, originating from the French word accoutrer which simply means clothe or equip. So once again the author is putting words into his character’s mouth that simply weren’t in use in the time period the book is set in.

Well, in this instance perhaps he should have considered using the word device.

Once again you could. But device didn’t appear until the period of Early Middle English.

Then what about using equipment?

Sorry but it didn’t appear in our language until the early 18th century. The word is French in origin – equiper. Now, are you beginning to see what a minefield the English language is for writers?


In the author in question’s case he simply gets away with it for two reasons, the first being that he is highly successful and loved by his readers. The second reason is that most people, by that I mean ordinary book lovers, wouldn’t consider questioning his choice of words, merely because they accept and understand the words he uses.

Writers have no excuses! Take a moment when you are writing a book to ask yourself if the words you are using are appropriate? Invest in a copy of the Oxford English Dictionary and Thesaurus, and please make sure the words you employ were common during the time period your book is set in, as far as is practicable. Take a tip from me, try to simplify the reading experience by striking a sensible balance. Above all, refrain from the use of overly long or obscure words where possible.

But does all of the above really matter these days?

Damned right it does! Just wait until your next novel appears in the market. There are pedants out there who take great delight in pointing out things like the above in public as well as spelling errors, all under the guise of offering a legitimate review or critique of your work. To survive you must become super critical of your own work to protect it and your reputation as a writer…


7 thoughts on “All writers need to use a thesaurus

  1. Taking your argument to absurdity, that novel set in ancient Egypt should legitimately be written in ancient Egyptian, since no English words were in use then. But I agree that a large vocabulary (and/or a thesaurus) is helpful to the writer, as well as some knowledge of how languages relate to one another. English is especially tricky, with so many words derived from other language groups.
    As for typos and errors, if reviewers notice a lot of them in a published work, I think it’s perfectly legitimate for them to mention that in their reviews. And I don’t mean reviewers who are ignorant of variant spellings or focus exclusively on ferreting out errors for the fun of it. Those are best ignored, but if we writers don’t want to be called out for typos and errors, we should make sure our works are error-free before hitting that “publish” button.


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