It’s the Christmas season, so today our Writing Well series offers you a gift. We feature five wonderful and free web resources to help you determine the correct word usage for your writing.
No matter how accomplished we are as scribes, there are times when getting “just the right word” or tone is a frustrating, elusive task.
Sometimes, it’s incorrect word usage. When we obliquely refer to something it’s allusion, not “illusion”. We’d never ask someone to examine “they’re possessions”, would we? These are big stoppers in your writing, and making such a faux pas hurts your credibility.
Other times the right adjective eludes us; the exact right one to add flavour or context to a passage. Still others, we need to vary our nouns or descriptors so we aren’t using “writing” or “ridiculous” ad nauseum in the same piece. (That’s always a challenge when writing about, ahem, writing)
We used to grab a reference book on our desk, then flip the pages to find what we’re looking for. Today we can (and should) open a browser window and click through to helpful websites or a Google search for the assistance we need.
Here are five of my favourite online writing resources specializing in words as tools. Are we missing any that you consider important? Please add them and let us know a feature or two by adding a comment below.
Just like the book from which it originated, this website offers alternate choices for thousands of words. From the common to the oblique to the obscure, it’s all here. One interesting feature is a series of sliders which allow you to tailor your selections based on Relevance, Complexity and / or Length. Remember, though, unless you’re writing for a PH. D. crowd, shorter and simpler is generally better. Other features include a word of the day, explanations of the differences between like-sounding words (Illusion vs. Allusion for example), grammar tips, quizzes and more. It’s a partner site of Dictionary.com, which offers many of the same features.
Not the first dictionary which will come up in a Google Search, but I like Collins because full definitions are easily searched and free. Many other dictionaries require a subscription to access anything more than basic information. Collins is fast, thorough and efficient. If you need help with pronunciation, you can click and listen to the word (distinct British accent, but hey, you can’t have everything). If you type in the Canadian spellings, it will provide the word in both Canadian and American forms.
I used to tell students to take Wikipedia with a grain of salt. But, the site is now quite trustworthy, particularly for basic descriptions and background information. If you want to understand the rationale or history behind a word and your dictionary isn’t cutting it, Wikipedia is a good place to check. Another big plus is its inclusion of obscure, or foreign words that slip into our language. I searched “Schadenfreude” and came up with a comprehensive explanation, etymology, English similes and examples of how to use the word accurately (among other interesting things).
This isn’t a word or grammar search page per se, I’ve included this for another reason. What you’ll find here is a wealth of articles and lists which can help you learn or clarify the rules of grammar and style. It contains dozens of articles / guidelines including commonly misused words, how to phrase sensitive items such as a note of condolence, sexist or biased language terms, etc. Got a sticky situation or challenging note to write? Check out this library of articles and you just might get some help in solving it. As a bonus, this site also offers articles targeted to students at various elementary and high school grades. All of the articles are easily surfaced via keyword searches.
This is not for the faint of heart. It’s a totally crowdsourced site, but if you run up against a slang term you don’t understand, or you are injecting street language into your text, this is the place to verify your word usage will be correct. Be aware, though, there is profanity and very explicit language. Just what you’d expect from something called the Urban Dictionary. Also remember to only use this sort of slang if the subject merits … and you are 100% sure you’ll be using it correctly. Another use for the Urban Dictionary is to find out what your teen is mumbling about. But that’s a whole other subject — and you might not want to know.
There you have it. Five great, free websites to assist your word usage. Bookmark them all to help you get a lot smarter — or at least look a lot smarter.
If you find this article useful, please check out the other instalments in my Writing Well series. You can also leave a comment below with ideas, suggestions or your impressions.