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Celebrate David Foster Wallace’s Birthday With Your Thesaurus

wallace.jpgThe late David Foster Wallace was born on February 21, 1962, so today is a good day to remember that you can get some free writing advice from the great novelist while working on your computer.

Every Mac computer contains a copy of the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus, a powerful tool for writers that features extra “word notes” from Wallace and a number of other authors, including Rae Armantrout, Joshua Ferris, Francine Prose, Zadie Smith and Simon Winchester.

Author Dave Madden explained how to access the extra material in a post: “It’s part of the built-in dictionary. Type in a word, click on ‘Thesaurus’ in the little bar above, and you’ll get the word-for-word entry from this book I paid money for … Here, as a public service, is the list of words with notes by DFW: as, all of, beg, bland, critique, dialogue, dysphesia, effete, feckless, fervent, focus, hairy, if, impossibly, individual, loan, mucous, myriad, noma (at canker), privilege, pulchritude (at beauty), that, toward, unique, utilize.”

Wordnik founder Erin McKean just wrote an essay about her experience working with authors on the Oxford American Writer’s Thesaurus. It concludes with a long list of words that included extra notes by authors–click here to read the complete list. (Links via Maud Newton and Brainiac)

As an extra bonus, we looked up Wallace’s word note for the word “impossibly.” The entry gives you a peek into the late novelist’s personal writing process and style:

This is one of those adverbs that’s formed from an adjective and can modify only modifiers, never verbs. Using these sorts of adverbs—impossibly fast, extraordinarily yummy, irreducibly complex—is an upscale educated speech tic that translates well to writing. Not only can the adverbs be as colorful/funny/snarky as you like, but the device is a neat way to up the formality of your prose without sacrificing personality; it makes the writer sound like an actual person, albeit a classy one. The big caveat is that you can’t use these special-adverb-plus-adjective constructions more than once every few sentences or your prose starts to look like it’s trying too hard.

If you want more resources from the author’s writing library, follow these links to download these seven free eBooks that inspired David Foster Wallace:

1. Phaedo by Plato (This contains what Wallace called “Socrates’ funeral oration”)
2. Poems of John Donne (Volume 1) by John Donne
3. The Complete Works of Richard Crashaw (Volume I) by Richard Crashaw
4. A discourse on method ; Meditations on the first philosophy ; Principles of philosophy by Rene Descartes
5. Prolegomena to any future metaphysics by Immanuel Kant
6. Varieties of Religious Experience, a Study in Human Nature by William James
7. Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus by Ludwig Wittgenstein

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