I mentioned the issue of declining vocabulary a couple of weeks ago. There’s another, related, problem that I’ve seen quite a lot: thesaurus abuse.
It tends to be pretty obvious when you come across a writer who is relying too heavily on a thesaurus for more interesting ways to express what they want to say.
Often, they’ll use words that might technically fit the definition of what they’re trying to say, but that actually have very different nuances or connotations from the word they should have used. Sometimes it’s simply a matter of a writer having chosen poorly. Other times it appears to result from a mistaken belief that those words will sound more impressive.
Now, I’m all for using the dictionary and thesaurus to help expand your vocabulary! The trouble is, if you’re not careful to become familiar with words in context as well, they can at times be very misleading. And if you choose the wrong word for your subject, the results can vary from mildly confusing to outright hilarious.
Take, for example, an advertisement for a jazz concert that was going to take place in my city. I won’t post the whole thing, but I found this section particularly interesting:
In case it’s a little hard to make out, the text reads: “The effect upon the audience is devastating.”
While that might be appropriate for a sad, dramatic movie… I’m not sure it’s a great way to attract audiences to a – supposedly – exciting, fun night of music.
The words we choose need to fit the subject – not just in their definition, but in tone and degree. Otherwise we fall into either using words that don’t quite fit, and thus sound silly, or… we write ourselves into a corner, using so many dramatic words that we become like the boy who cried wolf and have nothing left to express ourselves when we really need to say something important.