Studies have shown that common figures of speech have become so familiar to us that they have become semantically null — our brains tend to overlook clichés as meaningless noise and skip the informational content that might be contained therein. From a writer’s point of view every word has relevance, but if the writer relies too heavily on phrases that are too familiar, the reader is in danger of missing much of what the writer is attempting to convey. Every author needs (at least) a thesaurus in her tool-kit; but, as most readers can attest, an author who relies too heavily on a thesaurus for word choice can come off sounding pompous, pretentious our outdated.
Mr. Heehler’s “The Well-Spoken Thesaurus” is broken into two major sections: A short “Rhetorical Form and Design” style guide and the larger thesaurus itself.
Presented in a series of short,lessons, Rhetorical Form and Design offers samples from 17 separate authors and orators to showcase each rhetorical form. Lesson 3 uses passages from Ernest Hemingway in discussing verb displacement.; and you will find examples of objectification in the words and phrasing of Edith Wharton in Lesson 7.
Between the rhetorical lessons and the thesaurus you will find a brief discussion of the Seven Rhetorical Sins, again with examples from well-known authors (Steven King provides an example of cliché and a Jacqueline Susann passage shows why melodrama is to be avoided). The cautionary tale of rhetorical devices to avoid is followed by a short how-to-use-this-book passage, explaining the differences between this “rhetorical” thesaurus and more standard thesaurus, as well as offering some guidelines on how to best put the “Well -Spoken Thesaurus” to use.
The thesaurus entries comprise the bulk of this reference book and focuses not on a mere list of synonyms, but provides rhetorically related words that the author has coined as “powernyms” which allow writers to use ordinary words in extraordinary ways. Extraordinary language use does not often involve more flowery or formal language, but it does carefully present the words in a fashion that catch the reader’s imagination without causing them to stumble over obvious attempts to impress. For example, instead of “might have been” the thesaurus offers “might have proved.” Replacing been with proved gives the reader a verb to grab on to that has a slightly richer flavor than the placeholder “be” verb, without pulling the reader out of the story to admire the word choice. Mr. Heehler cautions against over-doing when editing for eloquence; suggesting that only one phrase per passage should be touched up, lest you run the risk of sounding pretentious.
For those who wish to extend their rhetorical range, the Well-Spoken Thesaurus is a good tool to start with, but I would also highly recommend learning at the feet of the masters At the very least become familiar with some of the seventeen authors presented in the first section, not just to study a phrase here and there, but to attune your eye and ear to excellent writing, and incorporate the best of each into your own experience.