A famous professor in the Oxford, named Walter Alexander Raleigh, said that “There are no synonyms, and the same statement can never be repeated in a changed form of words.” (Hit the Nail on the Head, Alan Warner). If there are no synonyms, there must be no variety of expression. What does Professor Raleigh mean? The following is the answer.

1, Definition of Synonymy
2, Differences between synonyms
2.1, Difference in the shades of meaning
2.2, Difference in socio-expressive meaning
2.3, Difference in stylistic meaning
2.4, Difference in collocation and distribution
2.5, Difference in origin
3, The importance of synonyms in writing
4, How to find proper synonyms during writing
5, Some exercises

1, Definition of Synonymy
Words or expressions with the same or similar meaning are said to be synonymous. In other words, synonyms are words or expressions that share common semantic features (An Introduction to Linguistics, 136). For example:
a man who has never married—a bachelor
The last example shows that the relation of synonymy does not only apply to lexemes. Simple expressions may have synonymys.

2, Differences Bewteen Synonyms

2.1, Difference in the shades of meaning

Because most words have both denotative and connotative meaning, though they are synonyms, their meanings are focus on different degrees or different aspects. For example, gaze and stare share the same denotation. Stare means “look at somebody or something for a long time” (Advances Learner’s English-Chinese Dictionary, 1717) but gaze emphasizes looking with interest. These two sentences can make their subtle difference clear. I stood at the window, staring out. In this sentence, staring conveys a lack of mental activity and curiosity about what is outside the window. However, I stood at the window, gazing out express a slight different meaning. Gazing conveys that I found the view out of the window magnificent, so I looked it with great curiosity.

According to the differences in emotional flavor, synonyms are divided into three categories: elevated, neutral and vulgar. For example, die, pass away and kick the bucket differ in affective meaning. Die is neutral, but pass away is elevated, and kick the bucket belong to the vulgar category.

2.2, Difference in socio-expressive meaning

Some synonyms are different in socio-expressive meaning (An Introduction to Linguistics, 137). In other words, the emotional flavor of synonyms is different. Some synonyms may suggest speaker’s approval attitude while others imply disapproval or neutral attitude. Let’s take little, tiny and small for examples. Being a child, if a girl hears that you are a lovely little girl, she will be very happy, because little conveys somebody is young and evokes tenderness, condescension and amusement. But if she hears that I heard you are a tiny girl, she will not be satisfied, because tiny means extremely small in built. However when a child hear you are a small child, he/she will be neither happy nor sad, as small is neutral, only indicating somebody is at a young age. Therefore, in socio-expressive meanings: small is neutral, tiny shows disapproval attitude while little imply positive sense.

2.3, Difference in stylistic meaning

Some synonyms are distinct from stylistic meaning (An Introduction to Linguistics, 137). This is to say according to the situation, the words we choose to express our feelings can be formal and literary or colloquial. Take a sentence in an analytical essay about John Keats’s life and his poems for example, “He expired in indigent circumstances.”. In this sentence, expire is a synonym for died, and in indigent circumstances for poor, but when the content and style of the essay are considered, expired and in indigent circumstance cannot be switched into died and poor, because the essay is written in a literary way. The change in synonyms is the change in style. For the most part, this kind of change will lead to discordance of the style of our essay. Thus, when we write, we must choose the words which are completely right for the purpose, or the essay may be discordant in style as if it is written by two different writers with different levels of literacy.

And also some lexemes can repeal the social relationship between the speaker and the hearer, which may be found in formal or literary English or in colloquial, familiar and even slang English.

2.4, Difference in collocation and distribution

Some synonyms have different collocation and distribution (An Introduction to Linguistics, 137). For example, answer and reply are synonyms, but with different collocations. Both answer and reply have the meaning of saying, writing or doing something as a reaction to a question, letter, telephone call etc. For the gender, answer is a transitive verb, but reply is intransitive verb. Therefore, when reply is used, to must be added after it. For example, I will reply to her letter. However when answer is used, there’s no need to put to after it.

Besides different collocation, some synonyms also have different distribution. For example, waked and awake both having the meaning of not sleeping, are belong to different genders. Waked can be either used as an attributive adjective or predictive adjective, but awake can only be used as a predictive adjective. If a person wants to express that somebody is not sleeping, he/she can say: He/She is awake, He/She is waked or He is a waked person.

2.5, Difference in origin

At last, some synonyms are developed from different origins (An Introduction to Linguistics, 136). That is to say some English words are developed from the native while others are brought in from another language. For example, ask, question and interrogate share the same denotation meaning, but their origins are different. Ask comes from Anglo-Saxon, question develops from Latin while interrogate is from French. Because of their different origins, the situations they can be used are different. Interrogate is often used in a formal situation, for example, A policeman is interrogating a suspect. While ask is treated as a colloquial word and is often used in daily life. Besides origin, some synonyms belong to different geographic varieties. In other words, some words referring to the same thing have different expressions in Britain and America. This distinction is very obvious. As for clothes, Americans prefer to say I bought a pair of pants yesterday, while the British tend to say I bought a pair of trousers yesterday. And there are many other examples: when we hear soccer in the US, we know that it refers to football in the UK; when Americans talk about fall, it is clear that they mean autumn in British English.

3, The importance of synonyms in writing

Synonyms are incredibly important in writing. A writer must always consider the reader during the writing process. If a writer uses the same words over and over, the reader is going to get bored incredibly quickly, which may have a negative effect on the overall opinion of the piece. Synonyms keep the subject matter from being too repetitious which is important in making the reader stays interested.

As there are such distinctions between synonyms, a slight alteration in the wording of a statement can subtly shift the meaning. Choosing words is part of the process of realization, of defining out thoughts and felling. Therefore, when we write we must be very sensitive of the language, especially for second language learners. And the important thing to choose a proper word is to have a good command over the words. A word known exactly is better than tow words known vaguely. The writing ability is not measured by our quantity of vocabulary but the skill in finding the most proper words.

4, How to find proper synonyms in writing

According to Alan Warner, an English teacher at Makerere College, the different senses of words which share a common root should be taken into consideration. That is because the origin of some words is the same and their meanings are related, but their usage is distinct. Besides the change in words is a change in style, and the effect on the reader is quite different.

So differences in origin, shades of meaning, socio-expressive meaning, stylistic meaning, collocation and distribution should be comprehensively considered when a writer is choosing a proper synonym to make his/her writing intersting.

5, Some exercises

Activity 1: Find multiple synonyms
Complete each sentence below with a word and three of its synonyms. When you need help, use the Microsoft Student 2008 Thesaurus. For help using the Microsoft Student Thesaurus, read the document How to Find a Word in the Microsoft Student Thesaurus that your teacher has saved to your classroom computer.
Example: The noise in the school cafeteria is loud (deafening, earsplitting, piercing).
A Word of Caution When Using a Thesaurus:
Many (numerous, multiple) English words have more than one meaning, and this can get you into trouble when you use synonyms. For example, carry means to transmit, but it also means to have in stock.
I carry my books in a backpack.
The bookstore carries backpacks of all kinds.
If you randomly pick a synonym without paying attention to the usage of the word that you want to replace, you could make a humorous error.
I stock my books in a backpack. (Huh? Sounds like it came straight out of a thesaurus.)
The bookstore lugs backpacks of all kinds. (It does?)
I lug my books in a backpack, and, the bookstore stocks backpacks of all kinds. (Sounds like nice writing.)

Activity 2: Find a good synonym
In the following three sentences, replace the words highlighted in bold with a synonym.


Activity 3: Find the right synonym
What’s my synonym? In the sentences below, there is one word that needs to be replaced with a synonym so that the sentence makes more sense. Underline the word in the sentence that you want to replace with a synonym, and write the synonym on the line provided.


Activity 4: Use an incorrect synonym
Now write four sentences of your own. In each sentence, replace a word with a synonym that is incorrect; that is, a synonym that has different usage or meaning of the word. In your sentence, underline the word that you are replacing with the incorrect synonym and write the incorrect synonym at the end of the sentence.
Example: You have to pay a toll to cross that bridge. (penalty)
Hint: Find words in the thesaurus that have more than one usage. Use a synonym incorrectly with the wrong usage. Creativity counts!



[1] “Improving Writing with Synonyms.” Vocabmaker. Web. 1 June 2011
[2] Warner, Alan. “Hit the Nail on the Head.” A New English Course. Ed. Guanyi Li. Shanghai: Shanghai Foreign Langue Education Press, 2009.1-4. Print
[8] Yang, Xinzhang, An Introduction to Linguistics, Beijing: Higher Education Press, 2010. Print.

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