Editing Tip: Using a Thesaurus

  • There are many reasons to strive for effective word choice, or ‘diction,’ including improving your style, tone, and content.

Choosing the right word to convey an idea can be challenging. There are three main reasons to strive for effective word choice, or diction:

  1. Style: To make your writing more engaging by using varied language
  2. Tone: To express your meaning in a professional way, using a formal tone
  3. Content: To accurately communicate your intended meaning

A valuable tool in all of these situations is a thesaurus, which is a dictionary of synonyms, or words with the same or similar meanings.

While you can find a thesaurus in the reference section of a library, you also have access to several options on your computer. In recent versions of Microsoft Word, highlight a word and then either click the “Thesaurus” button under the “Review” tab or use the shortcut Shift + F7 to reach the Microsoft thesaurus. A list of similar words will appear, and clicking on one of these will lead to further synonyms. Alternatively, right-click on a word and select “Synonyms” on the menu that appears.

Websites such as Thesaurus.com and Merriam-Webster.com additionally provide a variety of word choices.

For example, if you want to find a different way to say “research,” Microsoft Word’s thesaurus yields the following results:

Synonyms for ‘research’

  • investigation (n.): investigation, study, exploration, examination, inquiry, enquiry, inquiries, enquiries
  • investigate (v.): investigate, study, explore, examine, seek, do research, delve into, make inquiries, follow a line of investigation, look into, make enquiries

The thesaurus thus identifies two uses of the term “research:” as a noun and as a verb. The appropriate choice depends on the context as well as on personal preference, as several words may be correct:

  • Our research showed that = Our investigation showed that = Our study showed that
  • We researched the topic = We investigated the topic = We studied the topic

The term “research” is frequently used in academic writing, so employing a thesaurus in this case may help to diversify your language. Note that one of the phrases on the above list, “look into,” is relatively informal; if you were instead beginning with this term, a thesaurus could help to identify a more formal substitute.

A thesaurus is a powerful resource, but it can also be a dangerous one. The synonyms listed in this reference do not always have the same meaning as the original term, as in the following example:

Synonyms for ‘thesaurus’

  • lexicon (n.): lexicon, vocabulary, glossary, phrasebook, wordlist, dictionary, vocabulary list

Here, one of the listed alternatives for “thesaurus” is “dictionary.” Although a thesaurus is a type of dictionary, if you simply replaced “thesaurus” with the word “dictionary” (rather than “dictionary of synonyms,” for example), your intended meaning would be lost. Therefore, if in doubt, consider double-checking the accuracy of a new word choice using a dictionary.

We hope that today’s editing tip has provided helpful guidance about thesaurus use. As always, please contact us at [email protected] with any questions or comments. Best of luck in your writing endeavors!

Share with your colleagues

Share your work as a preprint and help move science forward

We invite you to share your research with the community by posting it online as a preprint. Our sister company, Research Square, is a trusted preprint platform that lets you get credit for your unpublished research early, increase your citations, and get feedback from the community.

Related Articles

Choosing the Right Words

Editing Tip: Relatively

The term relatively, most commonly defined as meaning “in comparison.” Read More »

Choosing the Right Words

Editing Tip: 'Respectively' Revisited

Our post outlining the basic usage of the term respectively explains its common use with two parallel lists (i.e., two lists with the same number... Read More »

Choosing the Right Words

Editing Tip: Proper Usage of Latin Terms

Latin terms are extensively used in scientific writing. Although these words and phrases may help to convey meaning concisely, they may also obscure meaning due... Read More »

Stay up to date

Sign up for early access to AJE Scholar articles, discounts on AJE services, and more