Monday, February 28, 2011

Don't get trapped by synonyms.

Some of us writers try to avoid repeating a word too often for fear of boring the reader. So we hunt for synonyms to give variety and change of pace. But we are likely to fall into a trap in our search for synonyms. There is no word in English that has the same exact meaning as another word. If it ever happens, one of the words will die quickly. Each word in the language has its own special meaning or it would not exist.

When you use a synonym instead of your original word, you move away from the first meaning you planted in your reader's mind, and likely from what you first intended. You are asking your reader to slightly change his thought, the thought you have just given him. That's mental work for the reader. He doesn't like it and it won't do you any good. Rather, take the risk of boring the reader by repeating words and thoughts, than of losing him by quick change of mental direction. Be careful when you use synonyms.

Language follows the principle of least effort. This theory says that every process in nature, every chemical reaction, every physical action of every living thing, is accomplished with the expenditure of the smallest amount of effort possible under the existing conditions. It is at work in, language as well as every other activity. The pressure is always toward reducing the length of words to conserve effort, and to make one word carry as many different meanings as possible. You can check this yourself by looking up a dozen single syllable words, counting the different meanings, and comparing them with the different meanings of a dozen three-syllable words.

This trend in language can make the writer's job more difficult. We know short words are easier to understand, but short words, because of multiple meanings, can also confuse the reader. We speak of a "good woman," a "good fire," a "good baseball team" and a "good time." In each case, the word "good" has a different meaning. The dictionary lists 25 different meanings for "good’ and also lists 81 combining forms, such as "good fellow," "good nature" and "good humour." So when you use the word, there are many opportunities for your thought to go astray in the reader's mind.

Incidentally, this word is one of many to have suffered from the widespread new illiteracy of general speech. Nothing is more exasperating than when one asks someone “How’re you feeling?” they reply, “I’m good.” This can only be countered by saying, "Yes, I know you are a good person, but are you well?”

So before you scramble for a synonym just for the sake of variety, remember that the meaning you want a word to carry depends not only on the word and its accepted meaning as given in the dictionary, but also on where and how you use it.

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