“This is a fragile issue.”

And now, for your dancing pleasure, the Roget Trio.

I’m probably being unfair, blaming Roget. Plenty of thesauri are lurking out there, ready to offer students what students think are synonyms despite constant rants from me that in all the hundreds of thousands of English words no two are true synonyms.

Knowing the level of effort most first-year students seem willing to put into their writing class, I should probably blame Bill Gates more than Roget, just as I blame B.G. for the many bland phrases he underlines green in MS Word Grammar Check, urging the substitution of a more bland (and not necessarily correct!) version. Bill (that is, in fact, how I refer to MS Word) is just a click away, whereas Roget takes a few clicks to get to on the Web, and even more effort to reach if all one has is a print edition.

At any rate, perhaps thanks to SAT Prep and high school vocabulary lessons geared toward standardized tests (such as the SAT), the young writers who arrive at my Freshman Comp door are oriented toward an assumption that long, and preferably Latin- or Greek-derived, words are somehow by definition superior to the shorter, Germanic-root, choices in the English lexicon (just as, I believe, they think “myself” is a better way of saying “me”). Thus their willingness—yea, eagerness—to click “Thesaurus” somewhere in the composition process, and their equal willingness to substitute one of the terms found thereby faster than you can say “check a dictionary first!” And thus a goodly number of my Horrors, when the substitute term does not, in one way or another, “mean the same thing as” the original, or when it cannot be transplanted into the same grammatical structure that comfortably housed the original.

Three such substitutions were real posers for me at first, and I gathered them together in the Book of Horrors as soon as I realized that the same impulse had sunk them all:

  • “A student newspaper should not publish a letter from a student who demotes another.”
  • “This is a fragile issue.”
  • “We cannot put circumstances on the right of free speech.”

Since I’ve set this discussion up already, my readers are better equipped to know what these students meant than I was, encountering them separately and unprepared. Now it’s fairly easy to recognize the unhappy choice of  “demotes” for “degrades” (rather a cute one!), “fragile” for “delicate,” and “circumstances” for “conditions.” Re-substitute those probable originals, and the sentences become perfectly clear and ordinary.

Getting French for a second: I used to use Roget’s as an aide-mémoire when le mot juste hovered just out of reach in my mind (now I tend to murmur “oh the hell with it!” and go, at least temporarily, with whatever comes close—nine times out of ten the word I wanted staggers into view before I finalize the document, and when it doesn’t, it just doesn’t). But today’s students seem to use thesauri as quarries for “better” or “other” (“But you said I should vary my word choice!”) words.

The two ways to prevent sentences that will amplify my Trio? 1) go ahead and use a thesaurus, but before you then use a found word, look it up in a dictionary that gives usage examples as well as definitions; 2) build a better vocabulary of your own. The two ways to build a better vocabulary: 1) get word lists and memorize them—this is called “the bad way”; 2) read, read, read, read, read, and by “read” I mean “read attentively! and look up words you don’t know.”

Of course, all these preventives and builders take time. How much quicker to click “Thesaurus” and then “Choose.”

For those who do, my Book is waiting. I will have the comfort of knowing I’ll never run out of fodder for my Blog.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

2 responses to ““This is a fragile issue.”

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