Recently I was checking for word repetition in a manuscript. This seemed to be a straightforward process. Type a word in “Find” and insert a replacement word using, of course, a thesaurus.
A thesaurus is a wonderful tool to keep writing fresh, but take care for not all synonyms are equal. Besides a thesaurus, it’s helpful to have a dictionary to verify meanings. For instance, take the word smile. Smile can be replaced by grin, smirk, simper, or beam. But they don’t all convey the same thing.
Smile means “to put on a happy expression.” Grin is “to smile broadly showing the teeth.” To beam “adds radiance to a smile”. Those seem fairly interchangeable, but simper refers to a smile that is silly or to an affected smile that is false. A smirk is also a silly smile but it's undertones are mocking with the intent to belittle or insult, to ridicule, scorn or slight, and turn up one’s nose.
A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but Romeo would’ve had a challenge wooing Juliette if the smile she gave him was a smirk.
Cry is another word with many synonyms. Squall which means “to cry noisily and continuously” can replace cry, however my heroine wouldn’t squall over her dead husband since dictionary.com says only babies or small children squall. She might weep, for that is “the expression of grief, sorrow, or any overpowering emotion by shedding tears.” She could bawl which also refers to unrestrained emotion, but could be linked to a tantrum rather than grief since its original meaning is “to shout or call out noisily.”
Dictionary.com defines other synonyms used to describe cry:
Sob - to cry noisily, making loud, convulsive gasps or to speak while crying.
Snivel - a slight sniff indicating suppressed emotion; tearful complaining.
Wail - a prolonged high-pitched cry of pain, grief, or anger… a lament.
Whimper - a series of low, feeble sounds expressive of fear, pain, or discontent.
My heroine could even pule. The American Century Dictionary defines pule as “to cry weakly.” Roget’s also says “to cry with soft, intermittent, often plaintive sounds.” However, dictionary.com defines it as “to complain.” Since people use internet increasingly to find out such things, the intended meaning could be skewed.
Our language is complex, beautiful and evolving. Using both a thesaurus and a current dictionary will help to express a story precisely and accurately.