A guide to the correct use of synonyms in writing

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A guide to the correct use of synonyms in writing

What are synonyms and why are they important?

A synonym is one of two or more words of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses.1 To put it simply, synonyms are words that have a similar meaning, for example, small–little, big–huge, beautiful–pretty, alter–change, difficult–challenging, etc.

Synonyms are essential for making our writing interesting and engaging, which are both important for effective communication and connecting with the audience. The correct use of synonyms in writing ensures that text doesn’t become repetitive, which can improve overall flow and keep readers hooked.

Although synonyms have similar meanings, the words we choose to include should be appropriate to the context and the tone of the document. In academic writing, the overall tone is formal, so formal alternatives should be used. Consider the following example: The researchers conducted big research vs The researchers conducted important research. Here, big and important are synonyms; however, their meanings aren’t the same, so they cannot be used interchangeably in all contexts. Therefore, when using synonyms in writing we must choose the best alternative from among the available options. This is especially important because an incorrect word may alter the meaning or tone of the sentence, leading to ambiguity.

How can synonyms improve your writing?2

Using synonyms in writing has several benefits. It can help structure your text and ensure that it doesn’t sound monotonous. While writing, you may want to quote information from other sources. In such cases, it is not advisable to use the exact words as in the source because that would amount to plagiarism. To avoid this problem, the sentence to be quoted could be paraphrased using appropriate synonyms. This can help make the sentence your own, thus avoiding the plagiarism issue. The use of correct synonyms can also help polish your writing and make it an engaging read.

Here are a few aspects to consider when figuring out how to use synonyms correctly:3

  1. Connotation: Refers to the intended meaning of the text—positive, negative, or neutral?
  2. Writing/language style: US/UK? Academic or nonacademic? Formal/informal?
  3. Audience: Researchers/business professionals/students?
  4. Purpose: Education/advertising/research information?

Problems with the incorrect use of synonyms in writing4

The incorrect use of synonyms or the use of contextually incorrect synonyms in writing can be misleading and may make the entire effort counterproductive. Listed below are some common issues writers often face while using synonyms.

  1. Overuse: Excessive use of the same word or many synonyms within a paragraph may make the text repetitive or difficult to read. Sometimes, using simple language is the best solution.
  2. Incorrect meanings: Picking the wrong synonym can alter the meaning of the sentence or make for a clumsy read.
  3. Technical or coined terms shouldn’t be replaced with synonyms. In academic writing, technical terms may need to be repeated at regular intervals. This is fine because such words cannot be replaced with synonyms.

Online sources to search for synonyms

Listed below are few online sources you could consult for good, context-appropriate synonyms:

  • Merriam-Webster Thesaurus: A thesaurus differs from a dictionary in that in addition to the meaning of a word, it also provides several synonyms that could be used in diverse contexts.

In this screenshot from Merriam-Webster’s thesaurus search for the word “group,” in addition to one meaning, several synonyms have also been listed. Each listed synonym cannot be used to replace any other word. For instance, to change the following sentence, “The students were divided into two groups,” one option would be to replace “groups” with “batches” (from the listed words). However, in this sentence, replacing “groups” with “band” or “array” or “assemblage” is completely incorrect contextually. Thus, you would need to use your discretion to select the most appropriate synonym from among the choices given.

This dictionary also provides the meaning of the word and lists the synonyms. A helpful feature of the synonyms list is that the language style (US or UK English) and formal/informal tone is also given.

This handy website lists several synonyms that are color-coded in terms of relevance, with the darkest shade being the most relevant.

This website creates a diagram for the searched word and indicates synonyms by green circles and antonyms by red squares.

This online resource offers different forms of the word “group,” which are presented along with their synonyms.

6.  Visual Thesaurus

This website also creates a word map for the referenced word and has color-coded to indicate the different word forms.

To conclude, while writing, look out for repetitive common words that can be replaced with one or more synonyms to create reader-friendly text. If you’re using a synonym in writing and want to check context appropriateness, consult one of the sources mentioned in this article above.

References

  1. Merriam-Webster. Accessed September 5, 2022. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/synonym
  2. Pubrica Academy. Use synonyms in scientific manuscripts to improve quality. Accessed September 4, 2022. https://academy.pubrica.com/presenting-research/language-grammar/use-synonyms-in-scientific-manuscripts-to-improve-quality/
  3. Literary Terms website. When and how to use synonyms. Accessed September 6, 2022. https://literaryterms.net/when-and-how-to-use-synonyms/
  4. Tan E. The power of synonyms: the good, the bad, and the in-between. Writing and Communication Centre. University of Waterloo website. Accessed September 5, 2022. https://uwaterloo.ca/writing-and-communication-centre/blog/power-synonyms-good-bad-and-between

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