Tag Archives: thesaurus

“The soil will become intoxicated by all the chemicals that they use to build the buildings.”

This sentence comes from an essay discussing a plan by the city of New Haven to convert a strip of land used by a co-op farm into a combination of mall stores and “clean manufacturing.” My student was considering a compromise proposal whereby the farm would occupy a smaller part of the strip and the development would be built around it. Not a good idea, my student argued, and you can see why: intoxicated soil.

I’m not sure I’ve ever seen, or can imagine, a building built by chemicals, but that’s not the fun of the sentence. Construction, especially in these modern times, does involve fuel, solvents, adhesives, finishes, and materials that contain or release chemicals of various sorts, although that’s not exactly what the language says. The first part of the sentence is so much more interesting that we can let the latter go by (although I didn’t in my comments on the paper: I drew an “equal” sign in the margin and slashed it, underlined “chemicals,” “use,” and “build,” and hoped the student would ask for clarification).

No, what’s interesting is the intoxicated soil. Once you start explaining why it’s wrong, you see why it’s so close to being right.

Webster’s New Collegiate provides definitions of three parts of speech.

intoxicate vt -cated, -cating: 1) to poison; 2a) to excite or stupefy by alcohol or a drug esp. to the point where physical and mental control is markedly diminished; 2b) to excite to the point of enthusiasm or frenzy.

Intoxicated adj: affected by or as if by alcohol.

intoxication n: 1) an abnormal state that is essentially a poisoning, as in “intestinal intoxication”; 2a) the condition of being drunk; 2b) a strong excitement or elation.

All these forms have as their root the word “toxic,” meaning “poisonous,” or “toxin,” meaning “a colloidal proteinaceous poisonous substance that is a specific product of the metabolic activities of a living organism and is usually very unstable, notably toxic when introduced into the tissues, and typically capable of inducing antibody formation.”

I don’t think alcohol actually qualifies as a toxin by this definition (chemists and biologists, please correct me!); but there is such a thing as “alcohol poisoning,” and it’s real, so we can at least use the term “toxic” with it. So “intoxicate” by its first definition can apply to alcohol, just as “intoxication” by its first definition can apply to drinking way too much.

But “intoxicated” is dedicated entirely to the effects of alcohol, either literal or figurative.

Well, I’m in love with my student. He eschews the shorter and simpler (and much more acceptable) “the soil will become toxic” and instead goes straight for the far more colorful “the soil will become intoxicated.” Has he decided on his own that this is the correct adjective to mean “poisoned”? Oh, I do hope so. I would far rather that he figured it out for himself than that some thesaurus offered it to him.

He has written a phrase that technically is not wrong, but nevertheless conjures up a delightfully bizarre picture in the reader’s mind (at least if the reader has ever been intoxicated by something other than arsenic or motor oil). Can’t you just see clods of earth reeling around the property, attempting to dance, bumping into each other, singing “Melancholy Baby,” clinging to lampposts, kissing, weeping, ultimately lying down and passing out? Are those sounds we hear coming from the site late at night hiccups?

That’s not a construction site: it’s a party.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil? Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com - Construction Site Photo. By permission.

Yes, definitely a party. Notice the intoxicated soil?
Image © Parkinsonsniper | Dreamstime.com – Construction Site Photo. By permission.


“Unfortunately she received tuberculosis.”

Bummer of a present, eh? Everybody else received toys for Christmas, but unfortunately she received tuberculosis. “Unfortunately” is right!

Whatever happened to “contracted”? Isn’t that the fancy word for “got” when it comes to diseases?

Maybe, for a person who has risky habits or hangs out in risky habitats, “developed” would work.

“Caught” would work too, of course. Tuberculosis is an infectious disease, and so one could logically catch some germs as they flew through the air.

We kids used to “come down with” things. We knew that coming down with the measles was different from coming down from school with a friend, or coming downstairs with a Teddy bear; we understood how to use this clear and functional phrase. And it had a logic to it, too. In our family a genuinely sick child got to spend the days on the livingroom couch, cuddled under a Crazy Quilt lovingly stitched by an ancient family friend named Martha (“which is your favorite patch?” could pass any amount of time), forehead regularly touched by Mommy’s cool hand, lovely little food treats periodically appearing (who else has eaten butter lumps rolled in sugar for a sore throat?). This meant, of course, coming downstairs instead of languishing remote and alone upstairs in one’s bedroom. We were sick; we “came down.”

And, in the vernacular, “got.”

Is this where my student went wrong? Did he check a thesaurus for fancy words meaning “get” and find “receive”? I suppose that’s possible, although I would have expected that he would then test it by ear: “Have I ever heard anybody use ‘receive’ in this way? Have I ever heard of anyone ‘receiving’ an illness? Well, NO! So I guess it won’t work…” But no such internal monologue seems to have occurred, and in it went.

The expression cannot, I tell myself, be part of anyone’s dialect—family or regional. Can you picture the excuse-note sent in by someone’s mother—”Anthony missed school yesterday because he unfortunately received a sore throat”—?

The only thing my student received from me was a comment that “received” was the “WW,” or “wrong word,” in this sentence, with a notation in the margin that it was not an idiomatic usage. If he paid attention to the comment, receiving it will have been fortunate.


“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language…”

Let’s not pay overmuch attention to the use of “kids” in a college paper, particularly a paper that is going to lament the imperfection of their learning.

I do like the “are to”: it embraces both “will” and “are supposed to,” and thus both hope and realism.

What follows is a recommendation to make the hope the reality:

“During elementary and middle school kids are to learn the basics of the English language. This tactic needs to be taken more seriously and at a more vicious approach.”

I don’t understand “tactic.” To what is my student referring? Surely learning itself isn’t a tactic, although plenty of tactics have been devised for learning. Is beginning with the basics a tactic? Perhaps. Teaching the basics in elementary and middle school rather than waiting until high school or college: could that be a tactic? Again, perhaps. Whatever it is, it has a clear need: “it needs to be taken more seriously.” Although English does tolerate the use of “needs to” with inanimate objects (probably a capitulation to vernacular usage rather than logic), I continue to be astounded by the servant role students assign to humans, including themselves: the inanimate object needs, and we oblige by fulfilling the need. Why not “We need to take this tactic (still doesn’t make sense, does it?) more seriously”? Surely the actual need is ours. Or even “This tactic is important”?

Once in a while I will bow to the vernacular, but student writers seem to choose this structure and use it again and again. Are they reluctant to bring themselves into the sentence? Or do they begin the sentence with the thing they’re intent on—this tactic, peace, potatoes—and then, wanting to give it urgency but not wanting to try starting the sentence over, make it needy?

Well, on we go, to my favorite part of this sentence. The phrasing “at…[an] approach,” while odd, doesn’t take us very far. Sometimes prepositions seem to drop into sentences simply to fulfill the need for a preposition, regardless of idiom or meaning. Leave it alone for today.

But I am surprised and intrigued by the recommendation of “a more vicious approach.” We’ve taken the switch, the ruler, the dunce cap, the corner, and the cloakroom out of the overwhelmed teacher’s arsenal over the course of the last century, and for what most of us would consider excellent reasons. We’ve tried to give students a stronger feeling of support and understanding in that complex and frustrating endeavor we call “learning.” But this student doesn’t seem to approve of a kinder, gentler classroom: she wants viciousness.

What could she have actually meant? I can’t really believe she envisions the ideal teacher as someone who snarls, smirks, and smites; I’m sure she wouldn’t want us to festoon those cheerful rooms with whips and chains, or grade papers with daggers instead of pens.

One of my students (not this one) told me a few weeks ago that as he’s writing a paper on his computer he routinely left-clicks (or is it right-clicks? I use a Mac and just click) on every tenth word or so to call up Word’s thesaurus for fancier language. If the writer of today’s sentence tried this same tactic (aha!), what could her original word have possibly been? If I start with “vicious” and try the Thesaurus, I get cruel, brutal, nasty, fierce, ferocious, inhuman, violent, sadistic, mean. “Intense” gives me deep, passionate, strong, severe, powerful, concentrated, extreme. From that list I can snatch “severe” and find strict, relentless, powerful, forceful, rigorous, ruthless, brutal, cruel. From that list I can take “cruel” again, and it will offer me, among many choices, “vicious.” But I’m sure she didn’t go on this kind of quest—starting with, perhaps, “strong” and working her way via “strong” or “strict” to “cruel” and then “vicious.” Surely she would have shied away from some of those intermediate choices before making her way to “vicious.”

If I set this bizarre notion aside and search my mental lexicon for sound-alikes instead of mean-alikes, I can dredge up maybe “officious,” a term I don’t think many college freshmen routinely use, and not much else. Help, O literate reader!

Meanwhile I will contemplate a picture of myself as the slave-driver in Ben-Hur’s galley—snarling, pitilessly pounding out the rhythm as my students, chained to their desks, ply their pens and try to learn the basics. Who is the patrician looking on—the Dean? Are those grad assistants in the aisles? “Ramming speed!”

Follow this YouTube link to take a look!


“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.


“‘The Pit and the Pendulum’ is an exacerbating story of the struggle of one man’s will to live.”

I loved this Poe story as a kid, and I loved it even more when I read it in college and could appreciate the author’s use of language to ratchet up the suspense and create palpable darkness. I can’t actually tell from this sentence whether or not my student liked it.

Did she mean “exasperating story”? Did reading it make her increasingly angry or frustrated, perhaps because of the sophisticated vocabulary, the lengthy descriptions, or the implacable cruelty of the Spanish Inquisition?

from listverse.files.wordpress.com, but clearly an early illustration of Poe's 1842 story

Did she find “exacerbate” in some thesaurus under “excite”? (I just found “excite” as one of a number of possible alternatives to “exacerbate” in Roget’s.) This is a common student route from sane word choice to some truly bizarre “fancier” words (I will be posting what I call the Roget Trio sometime in the near future).

Or did she think she was saying that each event in the story exacerbates the narrator’s suffering, or the reader’s suspense? That might have been her intention, but it certainly isn’t what her sentence conveys. As far as I can parse it, the sentence says that the story makes something-or-other “more violent, bitter, or severe” (per Webster’s), but what that something-or-other may be is unknown. It cannot make the reader more violent (unless the reader hates the story more and more and finally throws the book across the room); it cannot make the man’s struggle more severe or bitter, since it IS the man’s struggle. Upon what else can a story exert its powers?

Well, Poe was a master of mystery and suspense, and with this sentence my student joins him.

As always, your theories are welcome. What would you have said to this student to help her understand the problem with her word choice, or to get her to explain her reasoning to you?