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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The surprise reason sleep-deprivation kills lies in the gut

New research establishes an unexpected connection.

Image source: Vaccaro et al, 2020/Harvard Medical School
Surprising Science
  • A study provides further confirmation that a prolonged lack of sleep can result in early mortality.
  • Surprisingly, the direct cause seems to be a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species in the gut produced by sleeplessness.
  • When the buildup is neutralized, a normal lifespan is restored.

We don't have to tell you what it feels like when you don't get enough sleep. A night or two of that can be miserable; long-term sleeplessness is out-and-out debilitating. Though we know from personal experience that we need sleep — our cognitive, metabolic, cardiovascular, and immune functioning depend on it — a lack of it does more than just make you feel like you want to die. It can actually kill you, according to study of rats published in 1989. But why?

A new study answers that question, and in an unexpected way. It appears that the sleeplessness/death connection has nothing to do with the brain or nervous system as many have assumed — it happens in your gut. Equally amazing, the study's authors were able to reverse the ill effects with antioxidants.

The study, from researchers at Harvard Medical School (HMS), is published in the journal Cell.

An unexpected culprit

The new research examines the mechanisms at play in sleep-deprived fruit flies and in mice — long-term sleep-deprivation experiments with humans are considered ethically iffy.

What the scientists found is that death from sleep deprivation is always preceded by a buildup of Reactive Oxygen Species (ROS) in the gut. These are not, as their name implies, living organisms. ROS are reactive molecules that are part of the immune system's response to invading microbes, and recent research suggests they're paradoxically key players in normal cell signal transduction and cell cycling as well. However, having an excess of ROS leads to oxidative stress, which is linked to "macromolecular damage and is implicated in various disease states such as atherosclerosis, diabetes, cancer, neurodegeneration, and aging." To prevent this, cellular defenses typically maintain a balance between ROS production and removal.

"We took an unbiased approach and searched throughout the body for indicators of damage from sleep deprivation," says senior study author Dragana Rogulja, admitting, "We were surprised to find it was the gut that plays a key role in causing death." The accumulation occurred in both sleep-deprived fruit flies and mice.

"Even more surprising," Rogulja recalls, "we found that premature death could be prevented. Each morning, we would all gather around to look at the flies, with disbelief to be honest. What we saw is that every time we could neutralize ROS in the gut, we could rescue the flies." Fruit flies given any of 11 antioxidant compounds — including melatonin, lipoic acid and NAD — that neutralize ROS buildups remained active and lived a normal length of time in spite of sleep deprivation. (The researchers note that these antioxidants did not extend the lifespans of non-sleep deprived control subjects.)

fly with thought bubble that says "What? I'm awake!"

Image source: Tomasz Klejdysz/Shutterstock/Big Think

The experiments

The study's tests were managed by co-first authors Alexandra Vaccaro and Yosef Kaplan Dor, both research fellows at HMS.

You may wonder how you compel a fruit fly to sleep, or for that matter, how you keep one awake. The researchers ascertained that fruit flies doze off in response to being shaken, and thus were the control subjects induced to snooze in their individual, warmed tubes. Each subject occupied its own 29 °C (84F) tube.

For their sleepless cohort, fruit flies were genetically manipulated to express a heat-sensitive protein in specific neurons. These neurons are known to suppress sleep, and did so — the fruit flies' activity levels, or lack thereof, were tracked using infrared beams.

Starting at Day 10 of sleep deprivation, fruit flies began dying, with all of them dead by Day 20. Control flies lived up to 40 days.

The scientists sought out markers that would indicate cell damage in their sleepless subjects. They saw no difference in brain tissue and elsewhere between the well-rested and sleep-deprived fruit flies, with the exception of one fruit fly.

However, in the guts of sleep-deprived fruit flies was a massive accumulation of ROS, which peaked around Day 10. Says Vaccaro, "We found that sleep-deprived flies were dying at the same pace, every time, and when we looked at markers of cell damage and death, the one tissue that really stood out was the gut." She adds, "I remember when we did the first experiment, you could immediately tell under the microscope that there was a striking difference. That almost never happens in lab research."

The experiments were repeated with mice who were gently kept awake for five days. Again, ROS built up over time in their small and large intestines but nowhere else.

As noted above, the administering of antioxidants alleviated the effect of the ROS buildup. In addition, flies that were modified to overproduce gut antioxidant enzymes were found to be immune to the damaging effects of sleep deprivation.

The research leaves some important questions unanswered. Says Kaplan Dor, "We still don't know why sleep loss causes ROS accumulation in the gut, and why this is lethal." He hypothesizes, "Sleep deprivation could directly affect the gut, but the trigger may also originate in the brain. Similarly, death could be due to damage in the gut or because high levels of ROS have systemic effects, or some combination of these."

The HMS researchers are now investigating the chemical pathways by which sleep-deprivation triggers the ROS buildup, and the means by which the ROS wreak cell havoc.

"We need to understand the biology of how sleep deprivation damages the body so that we can find ways to prevent this harm," says Rogulja.

Referring to the value of this study to humans, she notes,"So many of us are chronically sleep deprived. Even if we know staying up late every night is bad, we still do it. We believe we've identified a central issue that, when eliminated, allows for survival without sleep, at least in fruit flies."

Withdrawal symptoms from antidepressants can last over a year, new study finds

We must rethink the "chemical imbalance" theory of mental health.

Photo Illustration by Joe Raedle/Getty Images
Surprising Science
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Four philosophers who realized they were completely wrong about things

Philosophers like to present their works as if everything before it was wrong. Sometimes, they even say they have ended the need for more philosophy. So, what happens when somebody realizes they were mistaken?

Sartre and Wittgenstein realize they were mistaken. (Getty Images)
Culture & Religion

Sometimes philosophers are wrong and admitting that you could be wrong is a big part of being a real philosopher. While most philosophers make minor adjustments to their arguments to correct for mistakes, others make large shifts in their thinking. Here, we have four philosophers who went back on what they said earlier in often radical ways. 

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Or is doubt a self-fulfilling prophecy?

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