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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If most stars form in binary pairs, what about our Sun? A new paper presents a model supporting the theory that the Sun may have started out as one member of a temporary binary system. There's a certain elegance to the idea — if it's true, this origin story could resolve some vexing solar-system puzzles, among them the genesis of the Oort Cloud, and the presence of massive captured objects like a Planet Nine.

The paper is published in Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The Oort cloud

Oort Cloud graphic

Image source: NASA

Scientist believe that surrounding the generally flat solar system is a spherical shell comprised of more than a trillion icy objects more than a mile wide. This is the Oort cloud, and it's likely the source of our solar system's long-term comets — objects that take 200 years or more to orbit the Sun. Inside that shell and surrounding the planets is the Kuiper Belt, a flat disk of scattered objects considered the source of shorter-term comets.

Long-term comets come at us from all directions and astronomers at first suspected their origins to be random. However, it turns out their likely trajectories lead back to a shared aphelion between 2,000 astronomical units (AU) from the Sun to about 100,000 AU, with their different points of origin revealing the shell shape of the Oort cloud along that common aphelion. (An astronomical unit is the distance from the Sun to the Earth.)

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It's generally assumed that the Oort cloud is comprised of debris from the formation of the solar system and neighboring systems, stuff from other systems that we somehow captured. However, says paper co-author Amir Siraj of Harvard, "previous models have had difficulty producing the expected ratio between scattered disk objects and outer Oort cloud objects." As an answer to that, he says, "the binary capture model offers significant improvement and refinement, which is seemingly obvious in retrospect: most sun-like stars are born with binary companions."

"Binary systems are far more efficient at capturing objects than are single stars," co-author Ari Loeb, also of Harvard, explains. "If the Oort cloud formed as [indirectly] observed, it would imply that the sun did in fact have a companion of similar mass that was lost before the sun left its birth cluster."

Working out the source of the objects in the Oort cloud is more than just an interesting astronomical riddle, says Siraj. "Objects in the outer Oort Cloud may have played important roles in Earth's history, such as possibly delivering water to Earth and causing the extinction of the dinosaurs. Understanding their origins is important."

Planet 9

rendering of a planet in space

Image source: Caltech/R. Hurt (IPAC)/NASA

The gravitational pull resulting from a binary companion to the Sun may also help explain another intriguing phenomenon: the warping of orbital paths either by something big beyond Pluto — a Planet 9, perhaps — or smaller trans-Neptunian objects closer in, at the outer edges of the Kuiper Belt.

"The puzzle is not only regarding the Oort clouds, but also extreme trans-Neptunian objects, like the potential Planet Nine," Loeb says. "It is unclear where they came from, and our new model predicts that there should be more objects with a similar orbital orientation to [a] Planet Nine."

The authors are looking forward to the upcoming Vera C. Rubin Observatory (VRO) , a Large Synoptic Survey Telescope expected to capture its first light from the cosmos in 2021. It's expected that the VRO will definitively confirm or dismiss the existence of Planet 9. Siraj says, "If the VRO verifies the existence of Planet Nine, and a captured origin, and also finds a population of similarly captured dwarf planets, then the binary model will be favored over the lone stellar history that has been long-assumed."

Missing in action

Lord and Siraj consider it unsurprising that we see no clear sign of the Sun's former companion at this point. Says Loeb, "Passing stars in the birth cluster would have removed the companion from the sun through their gravitational influence. He adds that, "Before the loss of the binary, however, the solar system already would have captured its outer envelope of objects, namely the Oort cloud and the Planet Nine population."

So, where'd it go? Siraj answers, "The sun's long-lost companion could now be anywhere in the Milky Way."

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