It’s all the same to me

Ever looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? I sometimes do this deliberately when I’m in a hurry to get something down and don’t want to interrupt my train of thought with the thinking up of possible alternatives. Then, I highlight the offending word and come back to address the problem later.

No, the repetition I’m talking about here is the unconscious use of favourite words time and again. Once you’ve noticed it, it’s easy enough to substitute another word using your computer’s inbuilt thesaurus – what a miracle that synonyms function is – or a well-thumbed copy of Roget’s, if you’re still struggling to find the exact word.

Synonyms are words with similar or identical meanings. They can be any part of speech, such as nouns, verbs, adjectives or prepositions, as long as both members of the pair are from the same branch of the grammatical tree. For example:

  • Noun:   story / tale
  • Verb:    buy / purchase
  • Adjective:    huge / enormous
  • Adverb:   quickly / rapidly

Technological thesauruses (thesauri?) are all very well, but often they don’t come up with the precise word you’re searching for, particularly if the word you’re trying to substitute has several subtly different meanings. For instance, try using Word’s synonyms function to find another word for ‘present’, meaning gift, not in attendance.  There aren’t any. Actually, there isn’t even a synonym for synonym., but that’s by the by.

In this particular example the difficulty lies in the nature of the word ‘present’. It’s a homonym. Homonyms are words that are spelled the same but have different meanings. So, I can give a present, or be present at an event.  Similarly, I can record a piece of music or keep a record of a transaction. ‘Present’ and ‘record’ are homonyms because they are spelled the same, but they can have different meanings.

When using synonyms you must take account of the sense of the word you are attempting to replace. For instance, died and expired can have the same meaning in the sentence, ‘He expired after a long and happy life,’ but we can’t substitute ‘died’ for ‘expired’ in, ‘My car insurance has expired.’

Some would claim that no synonyms have exactly the same meaning in all contexts because historic usage, ambiguous meanings etc. make all words unique. Different words that are similar in meaning usually differ for a reason: canine is more formal than dog; new and novel are only synonyms in one usage and not in others. For example, I can read a novel, or marvel at a novel use for plastic tubing.

But back to our writing. What if you’re writing long hand in the garden? Do you really want to interrupt your session? Can you be bothered going back into the house to look for the thesaurus, because you’ve forgotten to bring it with you? Seize the opportunity to exercise your brain rather than your body, by actually thinking of the synonym. Terrifying prospect, but that’s what we did at the writing group last week.

Peace was one of the words we had to find synonyms for, Splendid was another. What we came up with weren’t all exact synonyms; some were mere suggestions of the real meaning of the word, but the exercise certainly stretched our brains. Without the benefit of Roget, Smartphone or iPad here’s the list I came up with:

PEACE:  tranquillity; solitude; quietness; calm; serenity; self-possession; happiness; agreement; accord; harmony; silence; seclusion; composure.

SPLENDID: excellent; praiseworthy; superb; amazing; beautiful; marvellous; resplendent; great; brilliant; superlative; fabulous

I was struck by how difficult we initially found the exercise; we were all grumbling loudly until our thinking muscles loosened up. ‘Can’t think of a thing,’ was a common complaint. But then we started to jot words down, and once the ball started rolling we came up with lots of possibilities. These aren’t new words – we’re familiar with all of them – they’re just lying dormant in the backs of our minds, waiting for their opportunity to shine.

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7 thoughts on “It’s all the same to me

  1. There’s also the verb form of present. So you could present a present at the present time while you are present at the event. Ouch!

    We should all rely more on our own mental abilities and facilities more than we do. Keeping our brains well-engaged has been shown to slow or even help prevent the onset of dementia. Will we see a significant rise in dementia cases as more generations rely on “easy access” to information?

  2. My favourite use of the same word as a verb, a noun and an adjective is, unfortunately, an expletive – a friend, complaining about the broken photocopier, “the **@#ing, **@#er’s **@#ed!” And I think you might be right about future dementia cases, sadly.

  3. I was in exactly the same position a couple of weeks ago. Finishing the final draft and finding 93 uses of ‘something’ (yep, that’s just lazy writing) and around 40 uses of ‘familiar’. Not to mention how often characters ‘just’ did something… I loved the exercise of going through and finding alternate words without a thesaurus (OK, maybe once or twice). You’re so right that it exercises the brain – it also makes you far more aware of these lurkers next time you’re writing.

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