How to Use a Thesaurus

A thesaurus helps you avoid repetition in your writing and helps you find a word for an idea you have in mind. You can use it to increase your vocabulary as the typical thesaurus has synonyms for more than 100,000 words.


Get to know the features of your thesaurus. By understanding the parts of the entries and any changes in typography, you will grasp the nuances of the reference book's text. Thesauri may also contain antonyms, wordlists, and other interesting features.

Choose synonyms carefully. You will soon recognize that few words are exactly interchangeable. Use the thesaurus in conjunction with a good dictionary whenever selecting a word or phrase unfamiliar to you.

Each headword in the A-to-Z listing of is offered with its part of speech. Concise definitions accompany the headwords, supplying users with a basic reference point and helping them to evaluate synonym choices. The thesaurus has separate entries for different parts of speech and for different "meaning cores" for a word. Therefore, an entry word represents one meaning and a group of words considered synonymous with it in that sense. The synonyms may have other meanings as well, but they have at least one meaning in common with the entry word and the other synonyms in the list. The definition that comes before the synonym list tells you what meaning is shared by the words in the list.

The numbers that appear in superscript after the part of speech serve to distinguish the different meanings of a word. On, words with multiple meanings are sorted by frequency of use, with more common meanings appearing before less common meanings. In the example below, abandoned with the sense "deserted" is more common than abandoned with the sense of "bad."

Main Entry: abandoned
Part of Speech: adjective1
Definition: deserted

Main Entry: abandoned
Part of Speech: adjective2
Definition: bad

For a print thesaurus, read the introduction. There are two main kinds of thesaurus: a Roget-type with a categorization system and an A-to-Z thesaurus. Become familiar with the categorization scheme if you have a Roget-type thesaurus. In an A-to-Z thesaurus, you may also benefit from definitions at each entry. Look up a word in a Roget-type thesaurus in the index. The index will likely have the meanings listed under each word. Don't 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. You might find something you can use by broadening your search.


Use the thesaurus to avoid repeating words within a sentence and avoid beginning successive sentences or paragraphs with identical words.

A thesaurus groups words 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).

Remember that no two words mean exactly the same thing. No two words are directly interchangeable. It is the subtle nuance and flavor of particular words that give the English language its rich and varied texture. 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, 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.

An entry may also list antonyms, words that are in direct contrast with the entry word and synonym group. There may also be "contrasted words" that are almost opposite the entry word, but not quite. These words may be stronger or weaker in meaning and may not mean the exact opposite of the entry word. You can see that the help of a dictionary is important when you are looking up antonyms, too.

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