Anyone who writes or edits should have at least a few essential references close at hand. This is the first in a series of posts about useful reference works for the writer’s bookshelf.
The references I’ll be posting about are in book form, though some may also be available on the web or on CD-ROM. These different formats have their strengths and weaknesses, and though I generally prefer having books I can keep within arm’s reach of my desk for easy access and browsing, you should use whatever works best for you.
Some references, such as dictionaries and thesauruses, are available in a dizzying number of editions and formats, in print and online. I may recommend a particular edition I like and use, but you should compare a few directly (pick some sample words, look them up in different works, and compare the results) and choose the ones that meet your needs. The best references are ones that have the information you need in a format you find easy to navigate so that you’ll actually use them.
For years I used a classic Roget’s Thesaurus, the kind that arranged words in categories according to their meaning rather than in alphabetical order. I never gave it much thought, and I wasn’t looking for a new thesaurus, but a few years ago I discovered something much better, and I haven’t opened poor Roget’s since.
The Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus has become my thesaurus of choice for a number of reasons. It contains over 300,000 synonyms, arranged alphabetically, and features contributions by working writers, including Simon Winchester, Zadie Smith, David Foster Wallace, David Auburn, Francine Prose, Michael Dirda, and Stephin Merritt. This work places a great deal of emphasis on distinguishing between the different word choices and explaining how they should be used, making it much easier to find just the right word. I particularly like the special features, the notes and mini-essays giving a writer’s perspective on particular words and their usage, explaining fine distinctions in meaning among closely related synonyms, and clarifying easily confused words. The book also contains concise guides to grammar, spelling, capitalization, and punctuation, as well as important points of American English usage by Bryan Garner.
Here are a few examples to give you a sense of the style and usefulness of this work:
From the “word note” for utilize*:
This is a puff-word. Since it does nothing that good old use doesn’t do, its extra letters and syllables don’t make a writer seem smarter. Rather, using utilize makes you seem like either a pompous twit or someone so insecure that he’ll use pointlessly big words in an attempt to look smart… What’s worth remembering about puff-words is something that good writing teachers spend a lot of time drumming into undergrads: “Formal writing” does not mean gratuitously fancy writing; it means clean, clear, maximally considerate writing.
From “the right word” note for plot:
If you come up with a secret plan to do something, especially with evil or mischievous intent, it’s called a plot (a plot to seize control of the company). If you get other people or groups involved in your plot, it’s called a conspiracy (a conspiracy to overthrow the government). Cabal usually applies to a small group of political conspirators (a cabal of right-wing extremists), while machination (usually plural) suggests deceit and cunning in devising a plot intended to harm someone (the machinations of the would-be assassins). An intrigue involves more complicated scheming or maneuvering than a plot and often employs underhanded methods in an attempt to gain one’s own ends (she had a passion for intrigue, particularly where romance was involved).
From the “easily confused words” note for incredible and incredulous:
Believability is at the heart of both incredible and incredulous, but there is an important distinction in the respective uses of these two adjectives. Incredible means ‘unbelievable’ or ‘not convincing’ and can be applied to a situation, statement, policy, or threat to a person: I find this testimony incredible. Incredulous means ‘disinclined to believe, skeptical’–the opposite of credulous, gullible– and is usually applied to a person’s attitude: he managed to look simultaneously incredulous and bored by her story.
This work is not only informative, it is also fun to browse through, which isn’t true of any other thesaurus I’ve ever seen.
The first edition of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus was published in 2004 and it is still in print. (The retail price is $40, but Amazon sells it for $24.) A second edition is scheduled for November 2008.
There are, of course, many other thesauruses, in print and online, so find one you like and use it.
* The word note for “utilize” was written by David Foster Wallace. To read some other word notes by him, see my September 14th blog post.