The Best Thesaurus

Have you ever needed a better word than the only one that comes to mind? Nowadays, the easy solution is to type that word plus “synonym” into your Google search box. Call me old-fashioned, but I turn to a book: the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. Anyone serious about writing needs this book—a quantum leap in thesauruses (thesauri?), and so much more besides.

Every writer but the most gifted needs a resource for synonymous words and phrases, but for years all I ever saw was something called Roget’s Thesaurus. Call me a nitwit, but I just couldn’t figure the damn thing out. Why couldn’t I just look up a word and find a list of synonyms after it?

Then in 1978 came J.I. Rodale’s Synonym Finder. At last, a thesaurus that worked like a dictionary. I still have my copy, and it still comes in handy, but the OAWT is even better. The front cover says, “For the writer in everyone.” An excerpt on the back dismisses utilize as a pretentious way of saying use. Yes! I liked this book before I even opened it.

The OAWT is the Swiss Army knife of wordbooks. Though it’s a straight Rodale-style thesaurus most of the way, there’s a lot more after the last entry (zoom, which can mean both “charge” and “enlarge”). There is a handy 24-page refresher course on the rules of grammar, followed by a spelling guide that includes a substantial list of commonly misspelled words (e.g., inoculate, minuscule, Philippines) and familiar foreign-language terms (roué, serape, Zeitgeist), after which comes a capitalization and punctuation guide. Taken as a whole, these breezy, easy-to-understand sections provide a solid understanding of how our language works.

The most fun comes at the very end: a list of clichés and, better yet, a collection of redundancies. Writers will squirm at the clichés, knowing they’re guilty of having used several of them: acid test, all in all, done deal, duly noted, in the near future, touch base, wreak havoc, and so many, many more. The redundant phrases are startling: many seem fine until you think about them: advance warning, brief moment, climb up, empty space, false pretenses, plan in advance, whether or not, written down.

Here are a few features that I think make OAWT the thesaurus of the 21st century: Unlike Rodale, OAWT uses your word correctly in a sentence or phrase before offering alternatives. If a word has two or more meanings, each gets its own paragraph of synonyms—easy, for instance, has seven paragraphs, from uncomplicated to promiscuous. You’ll find notes on “Easily Confused Words” throughout, like after founder or rack, to alert you about flounder and wrack. “The Right Word” sections deal with fine distinctions, helping writers choose between, say, riddle and conundrum. “Word Banks” are comprehensive lists of everything from amphibians to knitting terms to wine grapes. “Word Notes” and “Usage Notes” explain the finer points and pitfalls of common words and phrases.

Hard-core word nerds will have beefs. I wasn’t thrilled with the hedging on media (it’s plural, OK?). There are opposing points of view on the validity of the disinteresteduninterested dichotomy (to me there’s no question disinterested means “unbiased,” not “apathetic”). On the other hand, I found terrific passages on troublemakers like comprise, data, impact, and like.

Memo to smart alecks: the OAWT indeed does offer synonyms for synonym … and for thesaurus.

Tom Stern


Pop Quiz

Can you spot the commonly misspelled words? (gleaned from the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus)
Suggested answers are at the bottom of the newsletter.

1. We will be happy to accomodate all those in attendence.
2. The chauffer flinched when the lightening struck the limouzine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinious act.
4. The mechanic sat in the restaurant feeling susceptible to melancholy.


Pop Quiz Answers

1. We will be happy to accommodate all those in attendance.
2. The chauffeur flinched when the lightning struck the limousine.
3. Stealing the promissory note was a heinous act.
4. All correct.

Posted on Monday, July 28, 2014, at 1:52 pm

6 Comments on The Best Thesaurus

6 responses to “The Best Thesaurus”

  1. Peter Brodie says:

    Looks good, thanks for the tip, just ordered a copy.

    One clue to its worth: it hedges on “media.” Yes, Tom, it’s plural; but it’s come to be regarded as “notionally” singular (like “data”) and so to rate a singular verb. If you want, that is.

    In the same way, “a lot” and “the majority”—-though singular—-are notionally plural: you never say “a lot/the majority of grammarians is dunderheads.”

    Also, if you check out “uninterested/disinterested,” you find that they used to be interchangeable–until some pedant decided to make a distinction where there was no difference. Similar thing happened with its/it’s. (Can they ever be confused? Why is “its” the only such possessive in the language to be robbed of it’s apostrophe?)

    The best guide to all this, by far, is Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage. And the best way to test it is to look up any of your pettest peeves: you’ll find them all shot down, with elegance and wit.

    I was a stickler for “He is one of those fathers who KNOW best (not KNOWS); but I have been duly chastened, and I now wear my dunce’s cap with the pride that comes from learning.

    • We’ll just have to agree to disagree on this one. The notion that uninterested and disinterested should be synonyms depresses our staff. Who says it was “some pedant” that “decided to make a distinction”? Maybe it was a cadre of sincere, thoughtful scholars. We feel it was a stroke of genius that enriched our language.

      As for your being “duly chastened” for choosing “one of those who know” over “knows,” how can anyone be chastened for making the appropriate and logical choice? “Know” is demonstrably correct. And it is no less correct just because it’s a subtle principle that a generation of philistines can’t grasp.

      • Anne says:

        While “fathers know” and “Father knows”, in your example the subject for the verb in question is “one” and “one knows”, right?

        • Our post The Wicked Of addresses this issue. The object of the preposition of is the key to finding the correct verb in the sentence “He is one of those fathers who know best.” The object of the preposition is fathers. If we slightly change the word order, you would write “Of those fathers who know best, he is one.”

  2. Oliver M. says:

    Thanks for the tip on the best Thesaurus… I have three different ones and still have difficulty finding the word I really want/desire/need/require. Approaching 80, some words just seem to leave the memory bank… so when writing a weekly column on recycling for the local newspaper or even when just answering an email, I find the Thesaurus handy. Will get the one you recommend at my next visit to a bookstore.

  3. Mary says:

    I prefer online ones these days. My new favourite is Power Thesaurus (

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