At a loss for words?

We all have favorites. Not only we take sides on historical rivalries (PC/Mac, Coke/Pepsi, draft/bottle, breastfeeding/bottle), but we also have strong preferences when several options are available (Haagen Dazs flavors, phone apps, types of exercise, books). They become our choices, and they end up defining us.

And some of us have this strange relationship with words. I love the word “weird,” for example (can’t imagine why). However, go-to words are not the writer’s best friends. It doesn’t matter if you’re writing a novel, an essay, an email, a blog post, or a text message. If we use a word or group of words repeatedly, readers will see us as lazy, unimaginative, unprepared, or worse: weird.

The answer? Thesauri and dictionaries! Some writers love their trusty copies of Webster, Oxford, or Roget. I rely on Webster’s, but I like the flexibility of online sources.

I use Bing search engine (I’m a PC). For example, suppose you want to use the word “pedantic,” but you aren’t sure of its exact meaning. You can type “define pedantic” in the Bing search bar, and it’ll return results from the Bing dictionary and from many other sources (dictionary.com, Merriam-webster.com, sometimes even Wikipedia).

Then you might think that using the word “pedantic” is a little pedantic. No problem. Type “synonym pedantic” and you’ll find many alternatives from Bing, thesaurus.com, synonym.com.

You can use “define” with phrasal verbs too. Note: I prefer to use a copy of McGraw Hill’s Dictionary of American Idioms and Phrasal Verbs.

It’s handy if you’re looking for slang or idioms too. Sometimes it returns results from the Urban Dictionary. As a YA writer, I find this site invaluable. Beware: many of the entries are inaccurate, hilarious, and wildly profane. Please use your best judgment.

Online sources are usually more up-to-date than hard copies. They are also fun when you’re doing free word association. You can go through many links in the chain faster than if you were using a hard copy, and bookmark them for later use.

Do you have “go-to” words? Do you use other sources? Which words baffle you? Once I mixed up “asymptotic” and “asymptomatic”—ouch. Please share!

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55 comments on “At a loss for words?

  1. Addy Rae

    I use the program Enso to spell check, use thesaurus, and define words. It uses caps lock (no more hitting caps lock and typing passwords in caps!) and then you type in the command: define, spell check, etc. In the case of define/thesaurus it pops up one of the dictionary webpages. A little faster than looking it up myself, and the spell check function works anywhere you can type text. :)

  2. asraidevin

    I’ve been running into issues with my brain where I want a certain word but I can’t think of that word, only it’s definition. SO i type the definition to google chrome and poke around until I find the word.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Your brain is wired differently, I guess :-) Good to know we can find the word from the definition. Great tip, Asrai.

  3. valerierlawson

    it is important to be aware of words you overuse. i found while going through my last revision that i’d made one of my characters say the word “God!” like twenty times over the course of two or three chapters (obviously had to cut them). i also used the word “just” for no apparent reason – filler i guess. (cut!) i’m sure i had some others but those were the ones that stood out. beware of bad habit words!

    1. Fabio Bueno

      I agree, Valerie! I overused “really,” “very,” and “just.” I still overuse “smile” and “realize.”
      Revisions are the worst. I spend ten minutes looking for a perfect synonym, replace the original word, and find the synonym half a page later. Oh, boy.

  4. Tameri Etherton

    Two of my favorite words ever ~ Quotidian and conundrum. Not only are they fun to say, but their definitions crack me up.

    I never thought to use a synonym finder online. That’s going to change today. ;)

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Thanks, Cora. Online sources are so fast! And we can click on another word, and another, and another…

  5. CC MacKenzie

    I use Wordweb online. It’s too easy to become trapped into loving words or phrases in this game. In the very beginning of this journey, about five years ago, I started to fill out index cards with ten new words every day to get me into the swing of using language/words that made my writing more visual for the reader. During editing I can mull over a word for hours until I find one that hits the spot.

    Another thing I do is if I spot an excellent word or phrase I copy it down and the phrase will be re-written at least six times to make it mine.

    Great post, Fabs!

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Great tips, CC! When I hear or read a word I know I can use, I write it down immediately.
      I’d line to try your index card technique too.

    2. Eden

      I LOVE WordWeb, CC. I love the way it does online and offline arrangements (plus the cute way the program nags me to not leave my laptop running all the time to save electricity) for synonyms, definitions via the Wikipedia and several online dictionaries… And the ability to bookmark definitions and topics!

      Though, for the record, Fabio, Bing is just Microsoft’s websearch feature page. You can achieve the same via Google, Alta Vista and several others… PC, Mac or something else. And sometimes it is worth checking out less used search engines since they might feature different resources.

      Have you seen this place? http://www.bartleby.com/ Lots of (older) references here… Great for people who do historical writing. And there are newer references as well.

      1. Fabio Bueno

        Hey, Eden, what a treasure trove for the word lover! I’ll try WordWeb and the other resources.
        I know that Bing and Google and other search engines are similar; I just love Bing. Another cool one is wolframalpha.com
        And I think this post deserves a follow up with all your suggestions (linked back to all your blogs, of course)!

        1. Eden

          I’d used Wolframalpha once long ago… Forgot all about it. WOW! Thanks for the reminder. I should give you a few more of my favorite word-links…

          The WWW Virtual Library: http://pages.istar.ca/~obyrne/dict.html

          The reverse dictionary: http://www.onelook.com/reverse-dictionary.shtml (because, haven’t we all been there once or twice?)

          I’m really glad you found these links useful. I love dictionaries. I actually have a collection of them here at the house. And for the record, my favorite thesaurus is something called March’s Thesaurus Dictionary. They stopped producing it in the 1930s, but you can still order a reprint online. Very worth it… It’s a bit of a cross from the Roget II concept, but according to themes… I tried doing an online search for a page to show you, but couldn’t find one, even though the 1902 version has been digitized. If you wish, I can scan in a page of one of my copies so you can see what I mean. It really helps find the exact work.

          Anyway, glad you posted this, Fabio. It’s been lots of fun. And I’ll be looking toward your next post. And no problem with the Bing-love. I probably use Google far too much… :-D

  6. Melinda VanLone

    I love thesaurus.com. And, for some reason the word underpants makes me giggle. Also the word kerfluffle. Er, that’s probably not an actual word, but Jon Stewart uses it all the time and it makes me laugh.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      I like “kerfuffle”. I giggle at a specific curse word (starts with “cluster”) that he uses a lot. I have no idea why. It has a nice sound to it, I guess :-)

    2. alberta

      Kerfuffle is certainly a word -

      Noisy and disorderly incident often resulting from an argument – used in informal British English (Collins English Language Dictionary)

      Fuss,commotion, disorder,agitation (Sorter Oxford English Dictionary)

      splendid word:)

  7. Angela Orlowski-Peart

    I rely almost 100% on the online dictionaries and Word Thesaurus. I often type (and read articles, blogs, etc) on my iPhone and love it since with a tap of finger I can go to dictionary – quick and easy.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Oh, I don’t use my phone to read blogs or news. I need to find the dictionary feature on my phone! I play “wordament”, though :-)

  8. jansenschmidt

    Good tips, Fabio. I use my paper thesaurus all the time, but I wish I had a better one. I like the Bing idea. I’m going to try that. What I find interesting is when I look up a word that I think is right, but discover it has several other meanings too. I’m always fascinated by the English language for that reason. And sometimes words sound wrong, but they’re right. I look up words a lot for that reason too. Just to make sure I’m saying the right thing. And sometimes I look up words even if I’m confident they are correct, just because I’m – weird.

    My go to word is “smile.” There aren’t too many words that get the point across in exactly the same way. I’ve tried the theasaurus, but I always go back to smile, because anything else sounds – weird. I mean lets face it, if I look at you and my lips twitch, you’re going to think I’m – weird, but if I look at you and smile, nobody will think anything’s amiss. Right? Lips twitching does not equate to smiling in my book. But on a search of my manuscript, I come up with thousands of smiles so what’s a girl to do? I’d love some suggestions for that word. I write romance and there’s a lot of smiling going on.

    Patricia Rickrode
    w/a Jansen Schmidt

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Patricia, I’m a “smile” repeat offender too! I use it all the time, and then I have to cut almost all of them. I blame my characters. They’re too happy.
      Words with more than one meaning intrigue me too. Sometimes I go searching for a specific word, become enthralled, and lose track of time.

      1. Fabio Bueno

        Margie Lawson posts are always interesting AND useful. Love that link, Eden, thanks!

  9. Louise Behiel

    great post. I use google for definitions and of course online dictionaries and thesaurus. Good to see you here, Fabio.

  10. emmaburcart

    Such good ideas, Fabio! Funny, I usually use online dictionaries to check my spelling. I have words that I cannot remember how to spell, so I’ve always had to use alternatives. I never thought of using the dictionary to look for meaning. LOL. Guess I’ll try that now. BTW, I think I FINALLY learned how to spell opinion yesterday! Yay me!

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Ack, I’m usually a good speller, but I can’t spell rhythm, Emma. I always add a “y” (I did it in the previous sentence and went online to correct it). Why? :-)

  11. Marcy Kennedy

    I don’t know if you’ve been to dictionary.com, but that’s my online go to source. You can get all kinds of good info right from origins of a word (if you’re writing a historical and think a term might be too modern) to synonyms.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Yes, dictionary.com is one of the sources that Bing suggests often. Great suggestion regarding word origins, Marcy!

  12. Laird Sapir

    I love visualthesaurus.com – it is my go-to when I need a good word…though, sometimes I waste time just clicking on all the related words that pop up! :)

    1. artfrane

      I knew somebody would mention that site :) When I taught ESL, that was my go to for just about every lesson I gave. What I like most is that it gives examples of how to USE the synonyms, which helped me teach the lesson that there is no true synonymy in any language. No two words or phrases actually mean the exact same thing and are used the exact same way. If I had a nickel for every time I saw a student swapping single words or full idioms so their writing could be more “authentic” (what they were told in their home country).

      Great post, Fabio. Got me thinking!

      1. Fabio Bueno

        I also like the idea of having examples of use, Aaron! It’s helpful when you want to double-check that the expression/word applies to that context. Thanks!

  13. Coleen Patrick

    I’ve been running into the same issue as Asrai–having to google the definition to remember the word. I don’t know what I’d do without the internet! Also I overuse the word “just” too much when I write. :)

  14. Kecia Adams

    Hi Fabio. My go to word is “poignant” for some reason. And that’s a word you probably don’t want to overuse, so I often have to search and cut. I use Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary and I have the paper Writer’s Thesaurus that has all kinds of quotes about words and writing in addition to all those great synonyms. :)

    1. Fabio Bueno

      “Poignant” is beautiful word; no wonder you gravitate toward it. I’ll learn more about Writer’s Thesaurus; it seems useful.

  15. Diane Capri (@DianeCapri)

    What fun ideas here! Lots of good new sites to try. But just thought I’d mention that many of these sites are some of the worst offenders for collecting your private data and sharing it around. Dictionary.com is always high on the list of offenders. They’re not doing anything illegal (or so they say), but once you use them, they track your web habits and use that info to sell their sites and to send spam and such to you. All the sites do this to one degree or another. I don’t think there’s any way to avoid them all.

    1. Jennette Marie Powell

      The advertisers do this by using cookies. That’s why if you search for something (say, furniture), you’ll start seeing ads for furniture on other sites. They can’t actually email you spam unless they’re either capturing your email through a form or login – or if they’re using malware – which would definitely make the news if a high profile site like these was doing it. You can turn off cookies in your web browser, but a lot of sites won’t work without them.

    2. Fabio Bueno

      I understand your concerns, Diane, but Jen is right. I use Internet Explorer, and I set it up so it prompts me for cookies the first time I visit any website.

  16. Jennette Marie Powell

    Dictionary.com and thesaurus.com are my friends! My go-to words are the same as many here: smile, just, only, still… Thesaurus is useful when I know there’s a specific word with the exact shade of meaning that I want, but I can’t quite remember the word.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Jen, it seems some of us resort to the same words. I didn’t know that. I also have a hard time finding the “perfect” word sometimes.

  17. Mike Young

    Good tips – love the Urban Dictionary. Yet another distraction.
    Some writing programs will indicate word frequency, a big help.

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Mike, thanks for mentioning Scrivener. I didn’t know it had a word frequency list. Great tool.

  18. Ali Dent

    Good food for thought, Fabio. I love using a thesaurus. Which words baffle me? The ones that give a particular context when included in a phrase. Just last night I was working on a query letter and wanted to reword this phrase: — stands to make a strong showing on the ____ bookshelf. I use the thesaurus in Scrivener. In the context of this phrase, stands and showing caused me some difficulty in the thesaurus. I gave up and went with this simple phrase — will sell well on….

    1. Fabio Bueno

      Aha! I also do this, Ali. When I can’t quite find the “perfect” word, I just (hello, “just”) rewrite the sentence.
      Great post today, BTW :-)

  19. Karen McFarland

    Okay Fabio, vacations really work for you! Wow, your post was very engaging! I love words. I didn’t always love them. Especially when I was younger. I didn’t appreciate how much meaning they had in our life. Now, as a writer, just the right word in a specific sentence or scene can make all the difference to a POV, theme or plot. So a thesaurus is my friend, although it’s tricky to pick the right word and have it sound like a word the character would use too. Great subject Fabio. Thanks! And congratulations to you for the wonderful reviews you have received for your writing! :)

    1. Fabio Bueno

      I agree, Karen. Sometimes the joy of finding just the right word is the best part of my writing day!
      I’m glad you’re back!

  20. alberta

    so you do you use just the right word with the specific meaning you want even though most of your readers will not understand? – do we as writers help with the dumbing down/contracting of the language to collect a wider readership or do we stick to our principles and try to use the language well?

  21. Kristy K. James...Living, Loving, Laughing

    Fun post, Fabio! I HATE words like into/in to and upon/up on. I’ve finally figured out awhile/a while. For the other ones, though, I’m constantly going to Google and typing in into or in to (never found an explanation that ‘stuck’).

    Repetitive words has been a pet peeve of mine for a long, long time. Something I read at some point in my life, I guess. It’s not that I’m never guilty of doing it occasionally, but I try very hard NOT to. It’s one of the things I warn people about when I offer to beta read…I just can’t help it. I have to point it out when necessary.

    As to what I use…The Free Dictionary, Websters (online), and the thesaurus (not sure which one because I just type in ‘thes’ on Google and there it is).

    A fun fact… When I got my first computer in 1997, Dogpile.com was a popular (and good!) search engine. I checked a few minutes ago and it’s still there. Not sure where they came up with the name but I didn’t know about Google then. :)

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