The same…. but different. Finding the perfect word.

How often have you paused, pen in hand, fingers over keyboard, trying to think of an alternative word to avoid a repetition?  How often have you looked over a piece of work and realised that you’ve used the same word several times in one paragraph? Or worse, had it pointed out to you at your writing group?

It’s time to grow your vocabulary.

I have a battered, well-thumbed paperback copy of Roget’s thesaurus which has seen sterling service all through my writing life. But these days I write directly onto the screen rather than in longhand, and it’s not always convenient to stop, pull out the book and search for an alternative word. So I make great use of the computer’s inbuilt thesaurus. It’s particularly useful during those lapses of memory, common at my age, when the perfect word dangles stubbornly out of reach, but you don’t want to interrupt your train of thought. It’s a simple enough process to substitute another word using the synonyms function. It might not be exactly the right word, but as long as it serves as an aide-mémoire it’ll do for now. Highlight the offending word and come back to the problem later.

That’s not to say that Roget’s is redundant. Far from it. Technological thesauruses (thesauri?) can be very useful, but often they don’t come up with the precise word we’re searching for. This is particularly true if the word we’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, rather than in attendance.  It doesn’t give any. Or try ‘lick’, meaning using the tongue to taste rather than defeat in battle. This is where we need Roget, and maybe the dictionary as well.

When using synonyms we have to take account of the sense of the word we are attempting to replace. Just because two words are listed as synonyms doesn’t mean we can necessarily substitute one for the other. Some would claim that, in the English language at any rate, there are no synonyms because no two words have exactly the same meaning in all contexts. Historic usage, ambiguous meanings, subtle differences, make all words unique. Look at some suspect synonyms here:

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. Spouse is the person you are married to, but wife is specifically female. Below, beneath, under all have similar meanings, but are subtly different.  Died and expired can have the same meaning in the sentence, ‘He expired after a long and happy life,’ but ‘died’ is no substitute for ‘expired’ in, ‘My car insurance has expired.’

So, synonyms aren’t automatically interchangeable. As writers we should always be on the lookout for different ways to express ourselves. Look at these alternatives for PEACE: tranquillity; solitude; quietness; calm; serenity; self-possession; accord; harmony; silence; seclusion; composure. And SPLENDID: excellent; praiseworthy; superb; amazing; beautiful; marvellous; resplendent; great; brilliant; superlative.

The more we expand our vocabulary, the better our writing becomes. As Readers’ Digest used to say, ‘It pays to increase your word power.’


5 thoughts on “The same…. but different. Finding the perfect word.

  1. I’m one of those – avid reader of English for 75 years, would-be writer, and former teacher of English – who says there are NO synonyms in English. I ditched my Roget’s years ago. I told my pupils, if you want to increase your vocabulary and use words appropriately, read, read, read!
    Often A word picked from a thesaurus jumps out of the page, and not for a good reason.
    Do it’s good you warned about that.

    • I find the thesaurus useful for finding the right word… eventually. The first few choices get me nearer the meaning I want to convey, but sometimes it’s a multi-stepped process. We regularly have exercises in our writing group to improve our vocabulary, and I agree that reading widely is the best way to stimulate this particular writing muscle. But the thesaurus is useful for prodding the ageing memory!

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