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Choose Your Words: Dictionary and Thesaurus

A good college dictionary contains a wealth of information--not just about spelling and definitions, but also about syllable breaks, pronunciation, grammatical functions, grammatical features, word forms, etymology (a word's origin and historical development), usage, and, frequently, synonyms (words of similar meaning) and antonyms (words of opposite meaning). The following sample dictionary entries from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 3rd edition, show how much information you can find in a dictionary entry.

Pla gia rism (pla je-riz em) n. 1. The act of plagiarizing. 2. Something plagiarized. [From PLAGIARY. ] - -plagiarist n. plagiaristic adj.

pla gia rize (pla je-riz) v. - rized, - rizing, - rizes. - -tr. 1. To use and pass off as one's own (the ideas or writings of another). 2. To appropriate for use as one's own passages or ideas from (another). - -intr. To put forth as original to oneself the ideas or intransitive verb words of another. - -plagiarizer n.

pla gia ry (pla je-re) n., pl. - ries. 1. Plagiarism. 2. Archaic. One who plagiarizes. [Latin plagarius, kidnapper, plagiarist, from plagium, kidnapping, from plaga, net. See plak-1 in Appendix. ]

Use a dictionary to learn or confirm the basic meaning of a word — its denotation. Take care with words that appear similar but are not necessarily interchangeable: respectable, for example, has a meaning very different from respectful; emigrant and immigrant have different meanings, as do defuse and diffuse, uninterested and disinterested. Always look a word up if you are not sure of its precise definition, particularly if you come across a new word in your reading or discover one in a thesaurus. An unabridged dictionary will show you how words are used in context.

A thesaurus is useful when you want to find alternatives to words that you know. Exercise caution, however, to make sure that a word you find fits your context. If you have used the word privacy a few times and want an alternative in a sentence like "She really values the privacy of her own home," you could consult a thesaurus. The following example, from Barbara Ann Kipfer, Roget's Twenty-First Century Thesaurus, provides synonyms listed alphabetically:

privacy [n] solitude, secrecy, aloofness, concealment, isolation, retreat, seclusion, separation, sequestration, solitude.

A word like aloofness would not work at all as a replacement for privacy in the example sentence. Seclusion is probably the best choice, but the thesaurus has no way of letting you know that. Using a thesaurus in conjunction with a dictionary allows you to find exactly the word you need. You might, in the end, want to use two words to convey your meaning: She values the safety and seclusion of her own home.

Note:  Thesaurus programs attached to word processing programs frequently offer lists of synonyms but little guidance on connotations — meanings associated with a word beyond its literal definition. Even a thesaurus software program needs to be backed up by reference to a dictionary. Synonyms can range far away in connotation from the word you started with.

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See also
Word Choice Checklist
Exact Words and Connotations
Tone and Language
Figurative Language
Avoiding Biased Language
Avoiding Tired and Pretentious Language