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Duan Jia

The Distinction Between English Synonyms

Name: Duan Jia

Number: 2002054103
Instructor: Prof. Gao Enguang
Major: English
Specialty: Stylistics
Department: Foreign Languages Department

May 20, 2006

Duan Jia

The Distinction Between English Synonyms

Thesis Statement: English synonyms can be mainly distinguished in three ways: meaning,
coloring and usage
1. Differences in Meaning
1.1. Differences in dimension
1.2. Differences in emphasis
1.3. Differences in weight

2. Differences in Coloring
2.1. Differences in emotion
2.2. Differences in formality
2.3. Differences in dialect

3. Differences in Usage
3.1. Differences in grammatical features
3.2. Differences in object
3.3. Differences in collocation


Duan Jia

The Distinction Between English Synonyms

Duan Jia

(Foreign Languages Department, Taiyuan Normal University, Taiyuan, 030012,China)

Abstract: A large number of new words and terms flock in the English vocabulary and English has a variety

of expressive methods making it possible to express the same meaning by different words.

Therefore English synonyms are so abundant that it is possible to describe the colorful world

and to express the complicated, delicate human thought and emotions. But they bring people

many problems such as the correct choice of words from synonyms. The reason for this

problem is the insufficient knowledge of the distinction of English synonyms, which have

differences in many aspects. This paper offers three main aspects in distinguishing English

synonyms that include words’ meaning, coloring and usage.

Key words: synonyms; distinguishing; words’ meaning; color; usage


(太原师范学院外语系,中国 , 太原 , 030012 )







Duan Jia

Duan Jia
English 2002054103
Gao Enguang

The Distinction Between English Synonyms


It is an uncontroversial fact that English vocabulary is of great number. With the development of

economy, the improvement of society, and the ever-changing science and technology, a large number of new

words and terms flock in the vocabulary. Besides, English has a variety of expressive methods, making it

possible to express the same meaning by different words. Therefore, English synonyms are so abundant that it

is possible to describe the colorful world and to express the complicated, delicate human thoughts and

emotions. While the abundant synonyms offer English users opportunities to show their language competence,

they bring them many difficulties in mastering the expressions. One common problem is the correct choice of

words from synonyms. One reason for this problem is the insufficient knowledge of the distinction of

synonyms. Though English synonyms are abundant, they have differences in limited aspects. They can be

mainly distinguished in three ways: meaning, coloring and usage.

Synonym means a word or phrase with the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or phrase

in the same language. Some English meanings have a variety of expressions. For example, statistically, there

are “ 18 different words which can be used to express the same meaning of ‘beautiful’; 21 words for ‘begin’;

28 words for ‘pure’; and 42 for ‘friendly’.”(Collins, 1985: 96) In American English, the “money” has many

synonyms such as beans, bucks, cash, chips, dough, funds, the needful, the wherewithal, etc. The synonyms

are large in amount; therefore, a correct choice of them is important just as Ivor Brown said , “ The

craftsman is proud and careful of his tools; the surgeon does not operate with an old razor-blade; the

sportsman fusses happily and long over the choice of rod, gun, club or racquet. But the man who is working in

words, unless he is a professional writer (and not always then), is singularly neglectful of his instruments.”

(Brown, Internet) Choosing a wrong word can be imprecise or awkward, let alone convey an unwanted

implication. The correct choice must depend on clear discrimination of synonyms. Differences always come

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up when one talks about synonym because no two absolute synonyms are actually identical. There must be

differences in each group of synonyms.

1. Differences in meaning

1.1 Dimension

English synonyms usually have the same literal meaning but a few semantic differences. A

conspicuous character of English synonym groups is that in a group of synonyms there is often one word

containing a large dimension of meaning and used in common, while the others only have an aspect of

meaning of the word and are often used on a certain occasion with various special semantic meanings. For

example, in the synonymous group “look, glance, peep, gaze, stare, eye”, the word “look” has a large

dimension of meaning and is of common use, while the other words mean looking in a special way and are

always used on limited special occasions: “glance” means a short, quick look; “peep” means a secret glance;

“gaze” means a long, steady look, often caused by surprise or admiration; “stare” means a very surprised look

or a very ill-mannered gaze; “eye” means to watch carefully. In the group “laugh, chortle, chuckle, giggle,

guffaw, snicker, snigger, titter”, “laugh” is of great dimension of meaning, but others are used respectively in

special ways and different situations. “Chortle” means loud chuckle of pleasure or amusement; “chuckle”

means laughing quietly or to oneself; “giggle” means laughing lightly in a nervous or silly way; “guffaw”

means a noise laugh; “snicker” means laughing in a suppressed, especially unpleasant way; “snigger” means

half-suppressed unpleasant laugh, especially at something improper or at another’s misfortune; “titter” means

short nervous laugh.

1.2 Emphasis

A word contains denotative and connotative meanings. Synonyms usually have the same denotative

meaning but different connotative meanings that are shown by their emphases. English synonyms are

abundant for its wide-ranging origin. However, each word in each group of synonyms has changed obviously

towards different directions in the semantic distribution in the long course of development of the English

language and has different emphasis under its basic meaning. For example, the group “ox, bull, bullock, calf,

cow, heifer, steer, vealer” all mean a kind of family animal. “Ox” is the most common word in this group with

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a general meaning for both castrated or uncastrated animal in ox family, usually used for reproduction;

“bullock” and “steer” both refer to the castrated bull, but the former usually emphasizes the one for land-

plough, the latter is raised for its meat; “cow” and “heifer” both refer to the uncastrated female of any animal

in ox family, but the former emphasizes the fully-grown one especially the domestic kind kept by farmers to

produce milk and beef, the latter emphasizes the young cow, especially one that has not yet had a calf, while

“calf” means young cattle of both sex; “vealer” means flesh of a calf used as meat. In the group “young,

youthful, juvenile, adolescent”, their emphases are different. “Young” emphasizes youngness in age meaning

the one of recent birth or origin; “youthful” means having qualities typical of youth; “juvenile” means the

young person under 12 years old emphasizing the state of not being mature in physiology and intellect;

“adolescent” emphasizes time of a person’s childhood and mature adulthood that is roughly between the ages

of 13 and 17.

1.3 Weight

In every English synonymous group, each word carries different “weight” in meaning (i.e., they

express the meaning of different extent or degrees of intensity). ‘‘In degree of a given quality or in shade of

meaning, some synonyms have the same denotative sense with differences in degree of intensity ’’ ( Zhang

Yunfei, 1988: 193 ) For example, the group “cold, cool, chilly, frigid, frosty, icy” has the same basic meaning

when they refer to temperature. However, “cool” means fairly cold; not hot or warm and as not as strong as

“cold” to some extent. “Chilly” is just between “cool” and “cold”; “frigid” and “frosty” both mean very cold

just under the freezing point, but the former is more serious than the latter in the extent of coldness; “icy”

means the temperature reaches the freezing point which is as cold as ice. Another example is the group “break,

crack, crush, demolish, destroy, shatter, smash”. “Break” is a common word meaning separating (a whole

object) into two or more parts as a result of force or strain; “crack” means breaking something open but not

into pieces; “crush” means pressing or squeezing something into pieces from outside to inside or from up to

down; “demolish’’ means pulling or knocking down a building etc; “destroy” refers to damaging something so

badly that it no longer exists; “shatter” refers to breaking suddenly and violently into small pieces; “smash”

means breaking completely into pieces by a burst of violence with sound. Another group “let, allow, permit”

has same basic meaning, but they are different in “weight” of meaning. “Let” has the lightest meaning;

“allow” carries a strong weight; and “permit” is the strongest among the three.

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2. Differences in coloring

2.1 Emotion

Some synonyms refer to the same thing but reflect people’s different emotional ‘‘attitudes towards

what the word refers to’’ ( Qian Yuan, 1991:126) , often with one word neutral, one word carrying positive,

affirmative and favorable color while another one carrying negative, derogatory and hateful color. For

example, in the group “crowd, gathering, assembly, mob”, the word “crowd” is a neutral word; “gathering and

assembly” have commendatory color while “mob” is of pejorative color. In the group “friend, comrade,

crony”, “friend” is neutral; “comrade” contains favorable color, while “crony” reflects people’s derogatory

attitude. When we talk about somebody who is too light in weight, we may say “underweight” which is of

balanced emotive color, or we may say, “slim” showing our favorable attitude or “skinny” showing our

negative attitude. It is more persuasive to compare the synonyms in sentences as follows:

(1) Students admire her for her wide range of knowledge.

(2) It is unwise of you to be jealous of others and to speak evil of others.

(3) Miss Zhang’s beauty is the envy of a lot of women.

Though “admire”, ‘‘be jealous of’’ and “envy” refer to the same basic thing, they reflect people’s

different attitudes. The first one is of positive color; the second is just opposite to the first one, the third one

contains both attitudes of the above two.

2.2 Formality

Words in a group of synonyms always can be distinguished from the extent of their formality that is a

stylistic color though they refer to the same thing. Some word is suitable to be used on a common occasion,

and some word is a little bit formal while the others are informal. ‘‘The degrees of formality are determined

by the role, relationships, number of hearers, and contexts of situation… The formal English is found in

official documents, regulations, and business letters of ceremonial speeches. Informal English is found

typically in private conversations or personal letters. It is also used nowadays in advertisements and popular

newspapers’’(ibid.:212). The synonyms should be used according to the styles of different articles. In the

group ‘‘criticize, upbraid, knock’’, “criticize” is a common word; “upbraid” is formal and often used in

written English; “knock” belongs to informal style. There are many other examples as follows:

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Common Words Formal Words Informal Words

artificial factitious fake

cowardly pusillanimous chicken

excitement impassion turn-on

go to bed retire sack out

home residence pad

stop desist cut it out

wife spouse ball and chain

H·W·Fowler once remarked that “in official announcements ‘commence’ is appropriate; the ‘playbill’

tells us when the performance will commence, though we ask each other when it ‘begins’…The grave

historical style justifies commence, and historians, phrases, such as commence hostilities, keep their form

when transferred to other uses, though we begin and do not commence a quarrel; similarly we commence

operations, but merely begin a dinner.” (Fowler, Internet) Commence is of formal stylistic color and suitable

to be used on formal occasions. Though “begin” is synonymous with “commence”, it is always used on

common or informal occasions. Simeon Potter’s remark is worthy of quotation: ‘‘…Language is like dress.

We vary our dress to suit the occasion. We do not appear at a friend’s silver wedding anniversary in

gardening clothes nor do we go punting on the river in a dinner jacket.’’ (Potter, 1999:130)

2.3 Dialect

English synonyms have differences in another kind of stylistic color that is dialect, which means that

people from different regions use different words to express the same meaning. In other words ‘‘ same concept

or reference, different word’’.(Qian Yuan, 1991:154) British English and American English have the most

obvious dialectal differences because each possesses large vocabulary of conventionally special usage, which

is well-known to all British people and Americans, such as elevator (AmE), lift (BrE); can (AmE), tin (BrE);

gasoline (AmE), petrol (BrE). Some words in one nation may make the majority of another nation who speak

different standard language feel perplexed, such as trunk (AmE), boot (BrE); eraser (AmE), rubber (BrE);

cover (AmE), report (BrE). Let us compare the following two sentences:


I have an assignment to cover the conference. (AmE)


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I have instructions to report the conference. (BrE)

“Assignment” in sentence (1) means task or duty that is assigned to somebody; “instructions” in

sentence (2) refer to orders or directions given. Though they are synonyms, they have regional differences.

“Cover” and “report” are also synonyms both meaning interviewing and giving an account of the conference

in the two sentences, but the former is American English, the latter is British English. Besides, in some

synonymous groups of different dialects, one word that is standard in one nation can only be used in a certain

context in another nation. For example, “shop” in British English is equivalent to goods or services sold to the

public. However, “shop” means a specialized small store in American English, such as barbershop and shoe-

repair shop.

3. Differences in usage

3.1 Grammatical Features

Grammatical features of words play an important role in distinguishing English synonyms. Their

grammatical features in usage mainly reflect some differences of synonyms. For example, “much” an “many”

refer to the same basic meaning, so do “little” and “few”. However, they contain different grammatical

features. “Much” and “little” are used to modify uncountable nouns, while “many” and “few” are used to

modify countable noun. They are changeable on no occasion. “Bare” and “naked” both contain the meaning

‘‘without clothing’’, but the latter can be used as attributive and predicative; the former can only be used as

predicative. It is right to say: “The man is bare or naked”, but wrong to say: “a bare man”. In the group

“answer, reply, respond,” “answer” and “reply” are both transitive and intransitive verbs, while “respond” can

only be used as an intransitive verb. Take the following sentences for example:

(1) For the next few minutes the spokeswoman answered questions.

(2) China replied to America’ s violation of the Sino-US trade agreement with imposing punitive

tax on American exports to China.

(3) His audiences responded to his speech indifferently.

Some synonymous words such as living and alive are put in different positions: “living” is usually put

before a noun; “alive” is usually put after a noun. For example:


Jefferson once said, “The earth belongs to the living generation.”

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You are the happiest children alive.”

3.2 Object

English vocabulary is large and the distribution of words’ meaning is comparatively definite and clear.

Although some synonyms have the same meaning, coloring and grammatical feature, they are usually used for

different objects, which mean things or people to which thought, feelings or actions are directed. Limited by

different objects, the synonyms should be chosen carefully in different contexts. For example, in the group

“beautiful, handsome, pretty, “beautiful” is always used for female, but when used for children, it can be used

to describe both girls and boys. “Pretty” is not as strong as “beautiful” in meaning and is also only used for

female or children; whereas “handsome” is mainly for the male. When “handsome” describes a female person,

it only means that she is elegant. In the group “empty, vacant, hollow”, “empty” can be used to modify “house,

room, cup, box, stomach, head, words, etc” meaning having nothing inside; “vacant” can be used to modify

“position, room, house, seat, etc” meaning unoccupied; ‘‘hollow’’ can be used to modify ‘‘ tree, voice, sound,

cheeks’’ meaning “having a hole inside; insincere; false; or sunken. Besides, we have many synonymous

words to express the sound of animal, but we use them for different objects, such as a lion roars; a bear

growls; a wolf howls; and a fox yelps. We also have many natural sounds, which have clear distributions and

objects, such as a saw bazzes; a whip lashes; the rain patters; a train rumbles. Synonymous verbs: say, speak,

talk and tell have the same general meaning of expression in words, but we say something, speak language,

talk business and tell the truth. Some synonymous nouns also show this kind of difference. The following is an

example: a flock of sheep, a herd of cows, a school of dolphins, a pack of wolves, and a swarm of flies. Here

we use different nouns to indicate the same meaning: a collection of, but we use them for different objects.

3.3 Collocation
Collocation means ‘‘the word or group of words with which a synonym is used correctly.’’ (Zhang

Yunfei, 1988:198) or ‘‘occurrence or sets of words tend to turn up together in texts.’’(Qian Yuan, 1991:126)

English language has many fixed collocation or set phrases and in theses collocations, especially common

usages and idioms, the synonyms are not changeable. Limited by the collocations, the synonyms have different

usages in different contexts. In the group “dismiss, discontinue, ban, revoke”, each word has its own

collocation. Take the following sentences for example:

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The official who is guilty of corruption and taking bribes has been dismissed from his post.


The U.S will suffer most if it discontinues China’s most favored-nation status.


Departments in charge of industry and commerce are authorized by the government to ban speculation

and profiteering.


His driving license has been revoked once and for all because of his violation of traffic regulations.

These synonyms all have their own usage and are not exchanged. Another example is the group

“effective, efficient”.


This patent medicine is effective against rheumatic arthritis.


The traffic policeman on point duty took effective measures to relieve traffic jams.


An efficient executive, he soon had matters running smoothly.


Efficient management is one of the factors, which will lower production cost.

In the group “keep, hold”, both have their fixed collocations such as “keep at”, “keep down” in which

“keep” cannot be displaced by “hold”. In the group “insist, persist ’’, we have “insist on” and “persist in”. In

the group “accuse, charge” we have “accuse of” and “charge with”. They all have their fixed collocations and

cannot be replaced by each other. Therefore, we should pay attention to the different collocation s of synonyms

when we use them .


None of these different ways of distinguishing English synonyms are independent. Each word in each group

of synonyms should be distinguished in various aspects for each word contains multidimensional nature in

meaning, coloring and usage. We should connect these different aspects together systematically, and then we

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can understand and distinguish the synonyms clearly and use them appropriately.

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