Monday, June 01, 2009

Of Using Thesaurus Could be Dangerous

Note: This is again a collage of my posts in ReCom, so it might appear incoherent. This post is dedicated to my fellow juniors who are facing the struggle I once faced and is still trying to overcome.

Writing in English is a common struggle faced by most students from Chinese education background. Being unacquainted with the language, many of us have difficulty finding the right expression for our thoughts, and some people end up doing literal translation from Chinese language, often resulting in embarrassment.

In improving our language, one of the tactics often employed is to read thesaurus and do what I would call "find-and-replace". What happens is, instead of using simple words like "beautiful", "ugly" in our writing; we look up the fancier version of the adjectives in thesaurus and replace them with "idyllic" and "grotesque" instead.

While this tactic could work if we do it with care and complement it with improvements in other aspects of the language, I would like to remind people to resist the temptation of doing simple "bombastic-vocab substitution" without considering the context. I have seen many people who learn vocabs through thesaurus and end up writing sentences like,

  • Yeah I am trying to ameliorate my english
  • He is a bona fide guy
  • I reckon vehemently that you are of the right opinion;
when they actually mean
  • Yeah I am trying to improve my english
  • He is a genuine guy
  • I strongly agree with you
After some find-and-replace process, we end up with either sentences that sound awkward or are totally wrong. And worse of all, we don't even realise it, as some of us think that thesaurus means "the book of synonyms".

Just some explanations.

Ameliorate is "improve", but it's usually used in the context of "ameliorate the condition". I am not sure whether it's correct to say "ameliorate english", but the fact is that it's seldom used in this context, so when you simply use it this way it sounds awkward. It would be much better if you just say "improve my english" or "brush up my English".

Bona fide means genuine, but it only refers to the genuine in the sense that it's not counterfeit. E.g. a bona fide Malaysian, a bona fide van Gogh painting, a bona fide offer etc. However, it doesn't have the meaning of "genuine" in "a genuine guy". By a genuine guy we don't mean this is not a pirated-version of a guy, but we are referring to his sincere, truthful personality. And "bona fide" is not often used in this context.

Reckon means think, vehemently means with passion / emotion / zeal. That last sentence was simply improper and awkward. "Of the right opinion" is technically correct but it's not what you would say in daily conversation. It's a cumbersome phrase.

I hope that it's obvious from the examples above that if we simply learn our vocabs off thesaurus, thinking that we can substitute improve with ameliorate or genuine with bona fide indiscriminately, we will probably end up doing more harm than good to our writing.

At the end of the day, using good vocab per se is not a bad thing. Obviously all seasonal writers have a good repertoire of vocabulary, and the vocabulary fluorishes their writing. However, when the other aspects of our language is not as good as the vocab we are using, the whole thing will just feel absolutely awkward. For someone who is not too well-versed in the language, he or she might be "impressed" by our mastery of vocabs without picking up the other glaring errors; but for a native speaker, seeing improperly used vocab interspersed with glaring grammatical errors and non-flowing sentences is a major eyesore.

Or to put it the other way: vocabulary is to a language as icing is to a cake. If you put the icing on a great tasting cake, it's gonna make it even better; but if you simply put icing on a burnt cake or on a bowl of noodle, it's just yucky.


WP said...

Hehe, I like your comparison to a cake.

What I heard someone mention before is that he looked up the translation of a word when he couldn't think of it himself, but only used it if he knew how it was used. I think that's what people should do...and if they haven't heard of the synonyms they found, they can first try looking for sentence examples. It's a much better way to learn new words.

Me said...

Why do you begin so many posts with "of"? Looks weird

jinxiang said...

I'm one of the struggling juniors :)
Thanks for this post.
It helps a lot!

耀文 said...

Speaking from a lawyer's perspective, bona fide is a latin term with significant legal implications.

~YM~ said...

To me, those "bombastic words" upheld by most students to score an A in English is utterly rubbish. Sometimes, they even put too much of it such that the content could either be not there or become meaningless.

In fact, I've seen some authors who never failed to mesmerize with their simple English. Simple enough to understand, yet able to bring the so called "bombastic" feeling in the meaning. No point conveying something to an audience who can't even understand you. :P