Beware the Auto-Thesaurus!
  • 2-minute read
  • 24th September 2015

Beware the Auto-Thesaurus!

Despite ‘auto-thesaurus’ sounding a bit like a robotic dinosaur, this post is actually about the ‘Synonym’ function in Microsoft Word. If you’ve not seen this before, it’s available via the menu when you right click on a word.

This can be a very useful tool to help prevent repetition in an essay. But unless you understand the alternative terms that Microsoft Word suggests, it can actually detract from the quality of your work.

The Problem

The issue is that many English words have more than one meaning and that computers aren’t very good at telling homonyms apart. As such, the synonyms suggested may not apply to the subject you’re writing about.

Take the word ‘principal’ as an example. In contract theory, the terms ‘principal’ and ‘agent’ are used to refer to the employer and employee. But since a more common use of ‘principal’ is to mean ‘first’ or ‘most important’, none of Microsoft Word’s alternatives for this term (e.g. ‘main’, ‘primary’, ‘chief’) would make sense in the context of contract theory!

This might sound like an easy error to avoid, but you’d be surprised how often our proofreaders encounter similar issues. The important thing is to check the meaning of any unfamiliar word that you find in a thesaurus before using it.

An Example

To illustrate this, we conclude on one of William Shakespeare’s famous soliloquies:

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To be, or not to be: that is the question:
Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them?

And now we see what would have happened if The Bard had used Microsoft Word’s auto-thesaurus to pen his famous words:

Towards live, or not towards live: that is the subject:
Whether ’tis nobler in the brain to have a medical condition
The throws and cursors of disgraceful affluence,
Or to obtain missiles not in favour of a marine of scrapes,
And by divergent closing stages them?

We think you’ll agree that the original is probably better.

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