The writer’s bookshelf (part 1)

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.

13 responses to “The writer’s bookshelf (part 1)

  1. Oooh, thanks for that one. I’m off to see if I can find an inexpensive copy. But is there an Oxford *English* Writers’ Thesaurus?

  2. lisagoldresearch

    I checked Oxford University Press’s UK and USA online catalogues, but unfortunately, at this point there isn’t an “English” equivalent. It’s a great idea, though, and I’d want a copy myself, as it would be fascinating to compare the differences between them.

  3. I keep trying to explain to people that English and American really are two different languages–or at least very different dialects of the same tongue.

  4. The UK equivalent of the OAWT is the Oxford Thesaurus of English (OTE). It is larger than OAWT and, while it lacks usage notes from famous writers, it has some awesome appendices with collections of different sorts of words — similar to, but much more multifarious than, the word spectra in OAWT.

    (OAWT is actually an Americanization of the Canadian Oxford Thesaurus, which was a Canadianization of the UK Desk Thesaurus of some vintage. But Christine Lindberg’s work on OAWT has indeed made it a preeminently US American thesaurus).

    (I used to work for OUP dictionaries, but not anymore; yet I think OAWT has a special place in many of our hearts).

  5. lisagoldresearch

    Thanks for the info about the OTE.

    — Lisa

  6. What a great recommendation, thanks. I am loving your blog.

  7. Lisa-

    I love Garner’s MAU. He also edited Black’s for a time, and although his personal style is less evident there, it is still one of the better versions.


    P.S.–The blog is great! Keep up the fantastic work.

  8. Very nice post! I’m ordering the OAWT.

    But shouldn’t the plural of “thesaurus” be “thesauri?”

    btw, I landed here via a link from Lynne Kiesling’s blog: – I started out researching carbon trading and found a great thesaurus! How cool is that?

  9. lisagoldresearch

    According to the 11th ed. of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (which I will blog about in part 2 of this series), there are two acceptable plurals for “thesaurus”– “thesauri” and “thesauruses.” I happen to prefer “thesauruses.”

  10. Very nice blog. I am a portuguese-(bad)english speaker/writer and I’ve just started to visit your blog on a daily basis.
    I was also curious about a British-English Thesaurus and the Orion’s comment was helpfull.

    Please keep on. Congratulations!

  11. Hi Lisa,

    Nice blog. Looking forward to regular reading.

    I just wanted to plug my favorite Thesaurus – The Synonym Finder by J. I. Rodale. It’s a huge compendium of words. I also use a conventionally organized Roget’s, when I’m looking for inspiration, but The Synonym Finder has been my first port of call since I found it in a used book store several years ago. I will check out the OAWT. Always nice to have more tools.

    Also, on the utility of utilize. I work with technology companies, and they just love to use the word. Although I try to find alternatives, wherever possible, I’ve become more flexible, of late, and I wonder whether it doesn’t have a legitimate place in the technical writing lexicon, albeit with very specific caveats on usage. I fully understand that the word is short-hand jargon, and a symptom of sloppy writing in many spheres, but it is widely used in the tech industry, and not just by corporate marketers. It seems to me that, at some point, a writer has to let go of stylistic dogma in order to convey meaning in language that is familiar to readers. I certainly don’t advocate uninhibited use of utilize, but I think a case can be made for its use in tech industry writing.

  12. I’ll register an objection to the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus regarding “use” and “utilize”. While it is true “utilize” may be a puff-word in many instances, it also carries a nuance of meaning not interchangable with “use”.

    If I report that “Our drivers were unable to use the new GPS navigation system,” we are left wondering if the units simply didn’t work or perhaps they were too complicated to operate, or something of the sort.

    Yet if I report “Our drivers were unable to utilize the new GPS navigation system,” we can assume the drivers could USE the devices, but that they apparently found no real benefit in using the system. It seems “utilize” implies making a worthwhile use of something.

    Consider also: “Jennifer utilized some dry grass, the eyepiece from her now watersoaked video camera, and the bright afternoon sun to start a smoky fire that was her best hope to signal a search party.”

    or this: “A temporary fix was accomplished by utilizing a garbage bag, an old coat hanger, and a generous amount of duct tape.

    Although the word “use” (or “using”) could work also, “utilize” here adds the flavor of deriving utility from an object outside of its normal use.

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