Are synonyms important in academic English?
This is the first of two lessons about Antonyms and Synonyms. To complete this course, read each lesson carefully and then unlock and complete our materials to check your understanding.
– Understand the basic concept of synonyms in English
– Discuss the historical and linguistic reasons behind the existence synonyms in the language
– Explore five steps for selecting synonyms with accuracy for academic assignments
It’s very important that correct words are selected when communicating if one wishes to be understood. This is particularly true for non-native speakers of English who haven’t had years of language immersion in which to build mental dictionaries of successful vocabulary and definitions. While such non-natives may understand that accurate word selection is based on a comprehensive knowledge of word morning, they may not realise that ‘meaning’ in grammatical terms also implies aspects such as the formality of a word (its register), the words it combines with (its collocation), its multiple meanings (its ploysemes) and its contexts-of-use.
This short course on antonyms and synonyms focuses specifically on the accurate selection of words which have either similar or opposite meanings, which is an important topic for EAP students. This is because a wrong selection here when writing an essay or presentation can significantly affect the coherence of your writing – and therefore also your grade. If you wish to improve this aspect of your English ability, study the following two lessons about synonyms (Lesson 1) and antonyms (Lesson 2) carefully and then unlock, download and complete our Lesson 1 to 2 worksheets.
What is a synonym?
A synonym is a word or phrase that’s very similar in meaning to another word or phrase. Synonym pairs may be composed of any word type so long as the corresponding expression is also of the same type, such as in the two adjective antonyms (words with opposite meanings) ‘big’ and ‘small’ below:
What these two examples show us is that synonyms do not usually resemble the spelling of the original word, such as how ‘small’, ‘little’ and ‘miniature’ are all formed quite differently, increasing the challenge of learning them.
Thankfully, one simple test of successful synonymity is to replace the words in question with each other within the same expression to see how significantly they change the meaning. For example, ‘little’ and ‘large’ could be considered more effective synonyms for ‘small’ and ‘big’ than the words ‘microscopic’ and ‘gigantic’. This is because the latter mean ‘very small’ and ‘very big’ respectively, showing us that some words may be more synonymous than others:
Why does English have so many synonyms?
Students may be surprised to learn of how many synonyms there are for each word or phrase in English. They might wonder to themselves, Why would a language have so many expressions which mean the same thing? The truth is that no two synonyms are perfectly synonymous; their meanings will, in some way, be different. They might require different grammar, collocate with different words, be used in different contexts or have a different level of formality, adding to their complexity.
The reason for this complexity may be both linguistic and historical. Being a mixture of Norman-French, Germanic Saxon and numerous other languages, words in English have either continued to coexist (such as the Norman ‘people’ and ‘archer’ and the Saxon ‘folk’ and ‘bowman’) or have entered the language more recently as loanwords. If such words continue to be in existence today, then we can assume that it’s because they offer speakers a slightly unique meaning – one worth keeping.
Why are synonyms important in academic writing?
Synonym selection is an important aspect of forming engaging academic discourse, particularly in the written word. An essay that uses a wide variety of vocabulary will, for example, generally be more dynamic and convincing to its readers. Likewise, because the paraphrasing of source-based information is a necessary aspect of academic research, students will have to be skilled at finding different words that express the same thing. And if those two reasons aren’t enough, a good knowledge of synonymy can also improve the coherence and cohesion of a piece of writing through the use of lexical sets. By employing a variety of words and phrases to repeat the same concepts throughout an essay, the reader can be more clearly reminded and convinced of that paper’s key arguments.
Why are synonyms so challenging to choose?
Because synonyms often have slightly different meanings, grammar, formality, or context requirements, it can be very easy for students to make fairly damaging mistakes when selecting them. Take for example the word ‘overweight’ below: Which of its many synonyms would you choose to use in an academic essay?
Would you know that ‘obese’, ‘large’ and ‘rotund’ are the only acceptable academic synonyms for ‘overweight’ from this list, that ‘corpulent’ is too obscure for common use, that ‘podgy’ and ‘tubby’ are too informal, or that ‘flabby’ and ‘porky’ are too rude? Unfortunately, because there are no exact synonyms in English, because words can have many meanings (polysemy) or preferences (collocation), and because they can be archaic, informal or simply rude, accurate synonym selection is more often than not a challenging process for non-native speakers of English. Thankfully, there are a few simple steps which can be followed to help with this aspect of grammar and academic vocabulary.
Which five steps help with synonym selection?
Step 1: Use Your Own Knowledge
Firstly, if you’ve already had successful experiences in using particular synonyms, perhaps try trusting your own judgement until corrected otherwise. This method is what native speakers do without realising and what foreign speakers should perhaps learn to do too. After all, you won’t always have an online dictionary on hand to check meaning and may have to instead rely on your own knowledge and intuition.
Step 2: Research Possible Synonyms
Secondly, using online resources to investigate possible synonyms for the words you wish to paraphrase can also be a good idea. A simple right click on Microsoft Word can, for example, offer a number of useful alternatives. However, for a more comprehensive investigation, you might wish to consider using sites such as:
Step 3: Consider Formality
Though it is undoubtedly challenging to know how formal a word is or isn’t (and therefore how appropriate it is likely to be in academic settings), one quick rule to remember is that words of French/Latin origin tend to be more formal than those with a Germanic etymology. Take phrasal verbs, for example. An expression such as ‘put out the fire’ would be considered much more formal if the Latin ‘extinguish’ were used in place of the Germanic ‘put out’.
Step 4: Determine Frequency and Collocation
Next, you might wish to determine how frequent a word is in modern English to rule out archaisms, slang and other colloquial language. While you’re doing this, it might also be a good idea to compare the words which tend to appear before and after the word you’re investigating (its collocates). Both can be done at the same time using free-access corpora such as the British National Corpus or the Corpus of Contemporary American English. While it takes effort to learn how to investigate synonyms in this way, doing so will give you invaluable insight into word meaning.
Step 5: Trial and Error
Finally, there’s good old trial and error. Hand in a piece of written work full of awkward synonyms and your academic tutor will soon let you know. Similarly, use ancient or rude synonyms when speaking to a native speaker and watch their face for a reaction… You’ll soon know which words worked and which didn’t!
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