How to Find the Precise Word to Use

20 June 2013


People frequently ask me how to build up their vocabulary with what they call ‘precise’ words.


Knowing the words that precisely indicate what you mean helps to make your writing clearer and more to the point. That in turn increases the reader’s understanding and the potential for them to take relevant action.


An added bonus is that using ‘precise’ words makes you look more sophisticated (and who doesn’t want that?).


Resources for ‘precise’ vocabulary

Dictionaries and thesauruses, particularly online ones, are useful tools to help you know which words are more precise for a given situation. But you need to be careful when using them.


So I’ll illustrate how to use these resources to find the best word – and build your vocabulary in the process.



Thesauruses list words that have similar meanings (synonyms). So that’s a good starting point.


Beware: Technically speaking, English words don’t have other words with the exact same meaning. The synonyms you find in a thesaurus have subtle differences, or nuances.


Therefore, you’ll need to learn the nuances of synonyms, so that you’ll be able to choose the right word to indicate precisely what you mean.



Once you’ve come up with a list of synonyms, look them all up in a dictionary to get their precise definitions. Dictionaries also indicate whether a word is formal, informal, or archaic, and they provide sample sentences using the word.


After you’ve examined that information, cross off words in the list whose definition and level of formality aren’t exactly what you’re looking for.


But you’re not finished yet. Some of the subtle differences in word meaning have to do with other words they typically appear with (collocations), that is, how native speakers would typically use them. Some online dictionaries also list word collocations.


Illustration: ‘important’

Let’s work through an example to illustrate how to use an online thesaurus and dictionary to find more precise words to use in place of the word ‘important’.


I’ll be using the MacMillan Dictionary & Thesaurus online.


1.    First, from the thesaurus, here are some of the synonyms for ‘important’ that can be used to described an important thing or action: major, key, vital, crucial, significant, fundamental, central, meaningful, great.


(There are also synonyms for ‘important’ that are used to describe important people, but we’ll not examine them here.)


2.   Second, here are brief definitions of those words:

·      Major = important, serious, large or great

·      Key = very important

·      Significant = very important

·      Vital = very important, necessary or essential

·      Crucial = extremely important because it has a major effect on the result of something

·      Central = extremely important, and often causes something else to happen or develop

·      Fundamental = essential to the existence, development or success of something

·      Meaningful = serious, useful or important

·      Great = important or powerful


3.   Now let’s think about sentences where it would be appropriate to use some of these synonyms.

a.    Columbus’s discovery of the New World was significant for the economy of Europe.

b.    Having a business plan is fundamental/key/vital to the success of your new business.

c.    The location of the shop played a major/central role in its growth.


Another tool at the dictionary entry for ‘important’ is a list of words that are typically used with it (its collocations):

·      Adverbs used with ‘important’: crucially, extremely, most, particularly, terribly, vitally

·      Nouns used with ‘important’: aspect, element, factor, feature, issue, part, point


Your ‘assignment’

If you’d like to examine some words in a dictionary/thesaurus, use the steps above and see how you can expand your vocabulary of precise words.


To get started, find words that you can use in place of common words like nice, make and bad.


Send me what you’ve done (, and I’ll give you feedback.





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