Or, Choosing the Right Words to Make Your Meaning Clear
But he looks harmless!
That’s what he wants you to think…
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lazy dog.”
If you don’t know the typing-class significance of this sentence, I envy you. (If you do, we can suffer together?) Your feelings or lack thereof about this sentence aside, it’s a perfectly serviceable independent clause. It tells us things, and it paints a specific picture.
- There’s a brown fox.
- The fox is quick.
- There’s also a dog.
- The dog is lazy.
- The quick brown fox takes an action: jumping over the lazy dog.
If you’ve written a story about a brown fox who is quick and has a proclivity for jumping over lazy creatures, I dare say you’ve captured it perfectly.
“But it’s missing something.”
Says our hypothetical author.
“Ah! ‘Lazy.’ It’s just not doing it. I know, let’s put ‘lazy’ in the thesaurus!”
*I understand Microsoft Word isn’t the best Thesaurus, but for the sake of argument, let’s say our hypothetical author wants to be quick like our fox and might be feeling a bit lazy like our dog.
Right click on “lazy,” go to synonyms, and…
“Ooh, I like lethargic. *click*”
“The quick brown fox jumped over the lethargic dog.”
“That has a nice ring to it!”
I consulted my good friend MW (Merriam-Webster—we’re on an initials-only basis these days). MW told me the following.
Lazy: adj. disinclined to activity or exertion
Lethargic: adj. of, relating to, or characterized by laziness or lack of energy; feeling or affected by lethargy
Oh, there MW goes again, defining a word with its root word. Time to dig a bit deeper.
Lethargy: n. abnormal drowsiness
Lazy: adj. disinclined to activity or exertion
Is it just me, or does disinclined not seem like the same thing as abnormal?
Disinclined: n. unwilling because of mild dislike or disapproval.
Abnormal: n. deviating from the normal or average
It’s not just me.
“Should I put lazy back?”
That, hypothetical author, is up to you. Before you do or don’t hit undo, let’s consider these words.
Lazy has an air of decision to it. “I’m inclined not to move. I don’t feel like moving, so I’m not going to move.” Our dog is actively choosing to lie around and wait for someone to rub his tummy.
Lethargic, by contrast, means “abnormal” tiredness. Lying around is not necessarily a choice anymore. Our dog is unusually tired and may not be sure of why, so he thinks he’ll just lay down for a while until he feels better.
The difference is small, but it’s there, and the word you choose will set the tone for your dog’s motivation and character. If you want to imply your dog is overfed, under-walked, and generally enjoys sunlit patches of grass, “lazy” is the better choice. If your poor puppy is sick or sleep-deprived and that sun makes him feel like he’s actually got some energy, “lethargic” does your story more justice.
“But those meanings really aren’t all that different.”
Granted. The difference is pretty subtle. But subtle isn’t always the case. Lazy vs. lethargic may not feel like a huge difference, but it’s the principle here that’s important. The Thesaurus is kind of like Wikipedia—has the potential to be an endless rabbit hole of clicking. Like with Wikipedia, you may eventually end up so far from the source that you don’t even remember where you started. Let’s say our hypothetical author didn’t like any of the above choices for “lazy,” so they clicked on “lethargic” to get some more options. Word offers the following synonyms for lethargic.
“I don’t like any of these either, but at least lackluster looks different. *clicks it*”
“Hmm, maybe tame. *clicks*”
We’ve strayed rather far from lazy, and any word we choose at this point will change the meaning of the original sentence.
“The quick brown fox jumped over the domesticated dog.”
Domesticated: n. adapted over time (as by selective breeding) from a wild or natural state to life in close association with and to the benefit of humans
That is very different from lazy.
It’s possible you weren’t pleased with lazy to begin with and could very well find a better word with a completely different meaning to describe your dog.
It’s also possible you choose a word because “it sounds better,” but your choice bears little resemblance to the original word, thus changing your intended meaning and confusing your readers.
The thesaurus is a great way to find the right word for a sentence. But it can also find you the wrong word, and before you know it, you’re looking up synonyms for “slow” and finding words like “dilatory.” There’s nothing wrong with “dilatory.” It’s a perfectly nice word. But consider your intentions and audience. If you’re writing for middle-school readers, will they know what it means? You might be able to get away with one unfamiliar word, but do this too many times, and you’ve lost your audience. If you’re writing for adults who like to learn new words and may read with a dictionary handy, carry on.
The Thesaurus is a valuable and helpful tool, but like any other tool, it can be overused or use incorrectly. You wouldn’t use a hammer to tighten a screw. You’d use a hammer on a nail, but hit it too much and you might just break what you’re trying to fix. Consider your intentions and audience when choosing your words. Make the text accessible both for readers and your story. A fast-paced thriller will get bogged down by lots of flowery word choices. Conversely, a sweeping literary fiction may fall flat without the words to back it up.
Don’t let the TyrannoThesaurus Rex eat your story.
Seriously, he really doesn’t look that dangerous.
Want to make sure your manuscript doesn’t get eaten by a giant book-lizard or come down with thesaurusitis? I can help. Get in touch!