A thesaurus that only gives you simple words

I built a prototype to see if simpler synonyms could help me write with more clarity. It didn’t work.

Morten Just
Apr 7, 2016 · 4 min read

I made a text editor with a simple-minded worldview: There’s two kinds of words, common and uncommon. If the editor finds you writing an uncommon word, it gets deleted right before your eyes. It may sound annoying — and it is — yet thousands of users seem to find it effective, including readers of Mashable, Lifehacker and Boing Boing.

One feature request keeps coming back, though: after deleting a difficult word, can we please have some suggestions? Sounds simple enough, let’s give it a shot!

A simpler Musk

I began by opening Cleartext, typing in a recent blog post by Elon Musk. The words in bold are the uncommon ones.

ORIGINAL
As you know, the initial product of Tesla Motors is a high performance electric sports car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be aware of the fact that our long term plan is to build a wide range of models, including affordably priced family cars.

It’s not hard to read, but also not smooth. What would happen if replaced all the bold words with a more common synonym? To find out, I needed to build a special thesaurus, one that only returns synonyms from the list of 1,000 common words in English.

A contributor pointed me to the Moby Thesaurus project, containing more than two million synonyms, so it should do for the prototype. And even better, it’s in the public domain, which means it’s free. On the other hand, it doesn’t only return synonyms, but also related words. Anyway, since it’s just a prototype, maybe it’s not a big problem. Next, code.

The prototype does this:

  1. Find the word in the thesaurus
  2. Remove the uncommon synonyms
  3. Let me pick the best one

I loaded up the prototype and typed in the first uncommon word in Musk’s blog post, “initial.”

The obvious choice for “initial” is “first,” so that’s what I’ll use. I then went through the same steps for all the other uncommon words in the post, and ended up with this:

USING COMMON WORD SYNONYMS
As you know, the first offering of Tesla Motors is a high acting exciting games car called the Tesla Roadster. However, some readers may not be knowing of the fact that our long course plan is to build a wide stretch of builds, counting low-money family cars.

Are you into games cars or low-money family ones?

Wait. A games car? Low-money family cars? Eek. The synonyms are not doing a great job here. Time to back up a bit, and think about simplifying not just the word, but the entire sentence.

REWRITTEN IN CLEARTEXT
As you know, the first car we made is a really fast one. It runs on power, and we call it Tesla Roadster. However, you may not know that our big plan is to make many other kinds of cars. Some of them are made for families who are not rich.

Okay, the “rich” part doesn’t sit right. Maybe it’s more like

Some of them are made for families with normal jobs

or

…cars, some of them for families like yours

or just

Some of them are made for families.

The choice here could be a chance for the writer to express a certain right tone of voice. But no matter what I did in this case, the sentence came out more opinionated and probably also a bit more honest. Maybe “affordable” really is just an indirect way of saying “for people with normal jobs.”


Let’s look at all three versions side by side

While the rewritten version seems clearer, but also shorter, the synonyms version made the text sound weird. But not only that; picking out the right synonym turned out to be a time-consuming task, one that wasn’t as fun and challenging as rewriting. So anyway, I guess I’ll hold off adding a thesaurus for now, but feel free to grab a copy of the prototype, and let me know what you find.

Morten Just

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Computers are great, but aren’t.

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