- Roget’s International Thesaurus,
- a good dictionary, and
- The Elements of Style, by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White.
These three books—in actual physical paper, please—will give you paper-writing tools you cannot get from a computer or anywhere else.
Roget’s International Thesaurus—It is important that you get this version of the thesaurus because it provides much more than simple lists of synonyms. It also provides entirely different ways of saying the same thing. Let’s say you want a synonym for “friendly.” You go to the back of this thesaurus and find the word “friendly.” That then sends you into the middle of the thesaurus. There you will find, not just adjectives that are synonyms for “friendly” like “sociable” and “companionable” but whole different ways of suggesting friendliness: verbs like “fraternize” and “keep company with” as well as adverbs like “gregariously” and “affably” and even nouns like “party” and “festivity.” And right next door, you’ll find antonyms (opposites) like “aloof” and “cold.”Yes, this kind of thesaurus requires two steps to find what you’re looking for, but it gives ten times the possibilities. For more about Roget, who was an interesting man, see this link: http://www.edweathers.blogspot.com/2011/04/paean-accolade-tribute-and-encomium-to.html .
(Note: Do not count heavily on your computer’s thesaurus, which is puny, or a “dictionary” thesaurus which just lists one kind of synonym. Get the two-step Roget’s International Thesaurus described above and learn to use it.)
(Second note: Never use the thesaurus to find a “fancier” word. Use it, instead, to find the right word—which is usually not fancy at all.)
A good dictionary—I personally prefer the American Heritage Dictionary, College Edition because, in addition to clear definitions, it gives extensive usage tips about tricky words. For example, it will tell you whether its panel of experts considers it correct to say “It looks like I will pass calculus” or if you should say “It looks as if I will pass calculus.” (Most on the panel prefer the latter.) The Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is also excellent—easy to use, with some (less extensive) usage tips. Use the dictionary not just to check spellings (as you know, your computer’s spell-check won’t tell you if you’ve written “hoppy” but mean “happy”). Also use it to make sure the word you’re using really means what you think it does. For example, just the other day I discovered that I had been misusing the word “adulation” all my life. I thought it meant “love” or “adoration,” but it really means “excessive praise.” Good writers often look up words they think they know, just to be sure. It’s also just fun to look up new words occasionally, and to look at a word’s etymology (history). Computer dictionaries are improving rapidly, but they don’t provide nearly as rich a look at words as a paper dictionary.
The Elements of Style—This is a little book (about 85 small pages) that every good writer keeps by his desk. It contains some basic grammar advice (how to use dashes and colons, for example) and some advice about commonly misused words (see, for example, “unique,” which most students misuse), but its real treasures are the sections about “composition” and “style.” Its advice is short, easy to understand, and invaluable for any college student who wishes to blow her teachers away with good writing. Examples: “Put statements in positive form,” “Use the active voice,” “Do not overstate.” The examples in the book are clear and instantly understandable. Read this book before you take First-Year Composition. Keep it for your senior papers. Have it always in your dorm room. Read it once every year for the rest of your life.Take these three books with you to college. Your grade-point average will thank you.
Available on Amazon:
- Roget’s International Thesaurus, 7e, Thumb indexed (Roget’s International Thesaurus Indexed Edition)
- The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition
- The Elements of Style, Fourth Edition
Ed Weathers was a magazine editor and writer for 27 years and taught college English for another 15 years.