Guests of SHC

How to use a Thesaurus to Write in Plain English

Guests of SHC

How to use a Thesaurus to Write in Plain English

By Gavin B Harris

It’s Thesaurus Day today to coincide with the birthday of Peter Mark Roget, who published the first ever thesaurus in 1852.

The word thesaurus is the Latin version of the Greek word for treasure. Thus a thesaurus is a priceless tool for all writers, especially those who want to write in plain English.

A thesaurus helps writers to learn new words and find exactly the right word for the right meaning. And being perfectly clear about what you mean is vital if you want to persuade your reader to listen to your message and act accordingly.

It’s also worth remembering that the average reading age for a person in the UK is nine-years-old. That means that the average person has the reading ability usually expected of a nine-year-old child.

So to get your message across to the widest possible audience you should write in plain English at all times. Here are four tips to help you write in plain English, including how and when to use a thesaurus effectively.

1. Find the right word for the right context

George Orwell was a brilliant writer. He also offered some great tips for other writers about how to write in plain English. In his essay “Politics and the English Language” (1946) he states”…let the meaning choose the word, and not the other way around.”

If you’re not sure about exactly what a word means and whether you’re using the correct word, use a thesaurus to check. Always use the right word, not the word you want to use, in order to be clear about what you mean.

2. Watch your sentence length.

Any sentence of more than 30 words is slower and harder to read than a shorter one. If you find you’ve written a sentence of more than 30 words you probably need to split it up or take out a few words.

The shorter it is, the easier it will be for your audience to understand your message. For example, the average length of sentences used in the UK press is in the low twenties. This helps make the content quicker and easier to read.

When you need to edit a long sentence think carefully about what you’re trying to say and strip out unnecessary words. And use a thesaurus to check you’ve used the right words.

3. Avoid over-used words and phrases

Words like ‘delighted’ and phrases like ‘think outside the box’ have become extremely over-used. Other examples include ‘blue-sky thinking’ and ‘at the end of the day’. Because they have become over-used your reader is used to seeing them and they have lost their impact.

That’s not to say you can’t ever use them, if they’re ideal for making a point. But use them sparingly. And if you find yourself using them too much, then reach for that thesaurus again.

4. Use Anglo-Saxon words instead of their Latinate (derived from Latin) alternatives.

It’s generally better to try and use short words instead of long ones. You can of course use a longer word when it fits perfectly, but as a rule try and use more short words.

For example, Anglo-Saxon words are normally shorter than alternatives derived from Latin. Therefore, they’re quicker and easier for your busy reader to get through in order to find the message you’re trying to communicate.

Here’s a list of Anglo-Saxon words and their longer, Latinate alternatives:

  • Leave = relinquish
  • Row = sequence
  • Answer = response
  • Ask = request
  • Gain = advantage

Use a thesaurus when you’re looking for shorter alternatives to long words, such as those that derive from Latin.

If you need help to write content for your customers in plain English contact us today.

Gavin B Harris is a a freelance PR Manager and copywriter who specialises in sports, construction and property and food and drink ingredients. He lives by the sea and loves sport, follow him @gavinbharris.