How to use a thesaurus to actually improve your writing

Looking up big, fancy words won't make your writing better. But a thesaurus can help – if you use it like this.

MARTIN AMIS: Famously, Nabokov said – or infamously, perhaps it's now a synonym for that too – said, "There is only one school of writing, that of talent." And it's axiomatic that you can't teach talent. Of course you can't. But what you can do is instill certain principles, and the avoidance of ugly repetition is very important. Repetition has its uses and anything is better than trying to avoid repetition through what they call "elegant variation." This is an example from a biography of Lincoln: "While in Chicago he appeared to back concessions to the South. In New York he seemed to support…"

You know, there's no point in using a different word when there's no change in meaning.

And that's just something that the writer was taught when they were 12 – never to use a word twice in a sentence – and they've become terrorized by that and then addicted to a new "ingenuity" where you avoid it. But I'm talking more about sounds and rhythms.

The Nabokov novel we know of as "Invitation to a Beheading" was originally called – not for very long – "Invitation to an Execution". Now Nabokov said, "Of course I avoided the repetition of the suffix so chose to call it 'Invitation to a Beheading' rather than 'Invitation to an Execution', which is sort of rhythmically ugly."

You've got to think about the bits of the word as well as the word in its totality. Avoiding repetition of prefixes and suffixes as well as rhymes and half-rhymes, unintentional alliteration, et cetera, can be achieved by anyone simply by using a dictionary and a thesaurus. People think thesauruses are there so you can look up a fancy word for 'big' or a fancy word for 'long'. That's not what a thesaurus is for, in my view. A thesaurus is – you come to a point in a sentence and it's usually towards the end of a sentence where you're unhappy with the word you've chosen not because of its meaning but because of its rhythm. And you may want a monosyllable for this concept or you may want a trisyllable. So you look in the thesaurus, you find a simile that has the right number, you know, for the whole sentence to maintain its rhythmical integrity. And you just do that by going to your thesaurus. And also going to your dictionary.

Do not use words against the derivation. For example, dilapidate. It's fine to talk about a dilapidated building but not fine to talk about a dilapidated hedge, because dilapidated comes from 'lapis', which means 'stone'. So a really careful writer will make sure that they're not visiting an indecorum on the word's derivation. So it's very labor intensive.

I mean it takes a long time, sometimes, to get your sentence right, rhythmically, and to clear the main words in it from misuse. And all you're winning is the respect of other serious writers. But I think that any amount of effort is worth it for that.

And it's easy enough to find alternatives without committing the dreadful sin of elegant variation. And it just involves you in looking at reference books for a couple of minutes. I look in the dictionary, I check words in the dictionary a dozen times a day at least. And you find out very strange and interesting things. For instance, 'widow' originally meant just 'empty'. It's an adjective meaning empty.

Now that's part of your – when you look up a word in the dictionary you own it in a way you didn't before. You know what it comes from and you know its exact meaning. And whenever I do that – and I do it all the time – it's as if you feel a gray cell being born in your head, a little addition to your store of knowledge. And while all the other cells are dying in a kind of genocide of the aging process you can restore it, and that's what it feels like. And it fortifies you.

  • Using a thesaurus to find larger or more impressive words is misguided, says Martin Amis. Instead, use a thesaurus to find words with the perfect rhythm for your sentence.
  • For example, the Nabokov novel "Invitation to a Beheading" was originally called – not for very long – "Invitation to an Execution". Nabokov nixed the repetitive suffix.
  • A dictionary is also a writer's best friend; looking up words has a rejuvenating effect on your mind, says Amis. "When you look up a word in the dictionary you own it in a way you didn't before. You know what it comes from and you know its exact meaning."


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An organism found in dirt may lead to an anxiety vaccine, say scientists

Can dirt help us fight off stress? Groundbreaking new research shows how.

University of Colorado Boulder
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  • New research identifies a bacterium that helps block anxiety.
  • Scientists say this can lead to drugs for first responders and soldiers, preventing PTSD and other mental issues.
  • The finding builds on the hygiene hypothesis, first proposed in 1989.

Are modern societies trying too hard to be clean, at the detriment to public health? Scientists discovered that a microorganism living in dirt can actually be good for us, potentially helping the body to fight off stress. Harnessing its powers can lead to a "stress vaccine".

Researchers at the University of Colorado Boulder found that the fatty 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid from the soil-residing bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae aids immune cells in blocking pathways that increase inflammation and the ability to combat stress.

The study's senior author and Integrative Physiology Professor Christopher Lowry described this fat as "one of the main ingredients" in the "special sauce" that causes the beneficial effects of the bacterium.

The finding goes hand in hand with the "hygiene hypothesis," initially proposed in 1989 by the British scientist David Strachan. He maintained that our generally sterile modern world prevents children from being exposed to certain microorganisms, resulting in compromised immune systems and greater incidences of asthma and allergies.

Contemporary research fine-tuned the hypothesis, finding that not interacting with so-called "old friends" or helpful microbes in the soil and the environment, rather than the ones that cause illnesses, is what's detrimental. In particular, our mental health could be at stake.

"The idea is that as humans have moved away from farms and an agricultural or hunter-gatherer existence into cities, we have lost contact with organisms that served to regulate our immune system and suppress inappropriate inflammation," explained Lowry. "That has put us at higher risk for inflammatory disease and stress-related psychiatric disorders."

University of Colorado Boulder

Christopher Lowry

This is not the first study on the subject from Lowry, who published previous work showing the connection between being exposed to healthy bacteria and mental health. He found that being raised with animals and dust in a rural environment helps children develop more stress-proof immune systems. Such kids were also likely to be less at risk for mental illnesses than people living in the city without pets.

Lowry's other work also pointed out that the soil-based bacterium Mycobacterium vaccae acts like an antidepressant when injected into rodents. It alters their behavior and has lasting anti-inflammatory effects on the brain, according to the press release from the University of Colorado Boulder. Prolonged inflammation can lead to such stress-related disorders as PTSD.

The new study from Lowry and his team identified why that worked by pinpointing the specific fatty acid responsible. They showed that when the 10(Z)-hexadecenoic acid gets into cells, it works like a lock, attaching itself to the peroxisome proliferator-activated receptor (PPAR). This allows it to block a number of key pathways responsible for inflammation. Pre-treating the cells with the acid (or lipid) made them withstand inflammation better.

Lowry thinks this understanding can lead to creating a "stress vaccine" that can be given to people in high-stress jobs, like first responders or soldiers. The vaccine can prevent the psychological effects of stress.

What's more, this friendly bacterium is not the only potentially helpful organism we can find in soil.

"This is just one strain of one species of one type of bacterium that is found in the soil but there are millions of other strains in soils," said Lowry. "We are just beginning to see the tip of the iceberg in terms of identifying the mechanisms through which they have evolved to keep us healthy. It should inspire awe in all of us."

Check out the study published in the journal Psychopharmacology.