Word Traveler: How to Use a Thesaurus

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

A thesaurus helps you avoid repetition in your writing and helps you find a word for an idea you have in mind. A thesaurus is basically a collection of word lists with words grouped together that are similar in meaning. Usually, you reach for a thesaurus when you have a word in mind and you are looking for a word that is like it (synonym) or one that means the opposite (antonym). You can use it to increase your vocabulary as the typical thesaurus has synonyms for more than 100,000 words.

It is important to know the features of the thesaurus you are using. By understanding the parts of the entries and what changes in typography indicate, you will grasp the nuances of the reference book's text. There are two main kinds of thesaurus: the Roget-type based on a categorization system and the A-to-Z thesaurus. With a Roget-type, you should become familiar with the categorization scheme and the index. For an A-to-Z thesaurus, you may benefit from definitions given at each entry, while in a Roget-type, the index will likely have very basic meanings (sometimes called "meaning cores") listed under each word. In the Roget-type, it is smart not to limit your search to one category; also look at the categories just before and after the one you first look up. Examine the offerings in all parts of speech in the category of interest as you might find something useful by broadening your search.

In some thesauri, a synonym list may be followed by a list of related words. Related words are words that are almost but not quite synonyms. If you are looking for a word that is very close in meaning to a given word, the synonym list is the place to look. But if you are looking for a word that is only somewhat similar you should look at the list of related words.

Choose synonyms carefully. You will recognize that few words are exactly interchangeable; it is the subtle nuance and flavor of particular words that give the English language its rich and varied texture. Use the thesaurus in conjunction with a good dictionary whenever selecting a word or phrase unfamiliar to you. We turn to a thesaurus to find different, more expressive ways of speaking and writing, but we must turn to a dictionary, a sophisticated semantic tool, to determine meaning. Always consider synonyms in their desired context and consult a dictionary if you have any doubt about the application of a word or phrase. In order to make an informed selection from words clustered under a thesaurus concept in a Roget-type thesaurus, you should check the word in a dictionary and be sure to substitute the synonym in an example sentence to see if it sounds right and conveys the desired meaning.

A thesaurus entry may also list antonyms - words that are in direct contrast with the entry word and synonym group - and even "contrasted words" that are almost opposite the entry word, but not quite. Using a dictionary is also important when you are looking up antonyms.

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