Put the Thesaurus Down and Back Away Slowly


Seriously. Put it down.

Read the following (thanks to Danielle Oviatt, “The Shrew”) and tell me what you think:

Out of my orifices of vision crept tentitive (sic) droplets of salinity as I recalled Mama in the waning days of August, thirty-four summers ago. The tears crawled out softly murmuring, ‘We know it’s not easy to let us go, but until you do — only then can we flow as a river with an angst-ridden memory and cleanse this face of a pain unforgotten.’

Bouncing along to the rhythm of my sobs, seated near the aft of the bus enrout (sic) to work…

Impressed? Wondering if the writer is a Mensa candidate? Electrified by the spectacular prose?

Me neither. You’re annoyed, as well you should be. The text has been over-thesaurusized. (Of course, that’s only the tip of the purple-prose iceberg, and I’m not jumping into the freezing north Atlantic without a diving bell and a red pen.) The writer fell prey to one of the most prevalent misconceptions in writing: Don’t use a one-syllable word if you can find a four-syllable equivalent. Don’t use one word when five will do.

Now, I admit that I have, on occasion, succumbed to the siren song of old Roget. In writing my first novel at age 14, I might have, uh, accidentally described a breeze as a “whispered plash.” (My face burns at the memory.) So while I understand the temptation, who popularized the idea that using words no one’s ever heard of makes you sound smarter? Off with his head, I say. The insanity must stop.

When it comes to writing, shorter is better. Fewer words beats more words. (Remember Hemingway. Even if you hate his obsession with war and bullfighting and fishing.) The simple word trumps the complex.  This is because your goal always is for your reader to continue reading, without stopping to scratch his head, or to mark the passage to laugh at with friends later.

The other side of this same counterfeit coin is the idea that people get tired of reading the same old verbs and nouns all the time–such as said, walk and, as in the above example, eyes and tears. No doubt the writer believed s/he was being creative. But what s/he actually did was write accidental comedy. And as we all know, accidental comedy is sad and pathetic comedy.

So how should the above passage have read? A better rendition might be:

I cried, remembering Mama as she was in the summer of 1973. I sat in the back of the bus on the way to work…

I’m not even going to try to address the issue of crawling, softly murmuring tears. Creeps me out too much.

If you’re still not clear, below is an example of how a thesauro-phile might rewrite one of the most famous poems in the English language:

I have gormandized
the violaceous stone fruit genus Plumus
that occupied dominion in
the refrigeration unit

and which
you were expediently ensconcing
for the morningtide collation

Palliate me
they were ambrosial
nectareous
and hyperborean

To cleanse your palate, the real thing appears below. This Is Just to Say, by the brilliant William Carlos Williams, is a glorious example of simple, elegant language:

I have eaten
the plums
that were in
the icebox

and which
you were probably
saving
for breakfast

Forgive me
they were delicious
so sweet
and so cold

There. Don’t your feel better? I know I do.

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1 Comment

  1. […] They don’t comment, or remark, or whisper, or note, or murmur, or pronounce–put your thesaurus away. This isn’t a high school creative writing […]


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