Oct 28, 2012

Explaining the difference between (near-) synonyms

I have recently received an email from a colleague, an EFL teacher in Israel, about how her students find it difficult differentiating between near-synonyms. I repost here my reply alongside the original email with the author's kind permission.

Hi Leo, I wonder whether you can help me. Do you know any place on the web where I can compare the meanings of near synonyms? I've used the concordance type sites which give me lots of collocations, but that isn't what I want. It doesn't help my pupils to give them 10 collocations for each word (e.g. regular, usual, routine) some of which are identical. I need to be able to put my finger on a general rule(s) like, one is for people and the other is for abstract ideas (I know this example is irrelevant to those particular words) Thanks for any help you can provide. Renee Wahl

Dear Renee,

First of all, it's great to know that you use concordance software. I wouldn't give pupils 10 collocations for each word as it is a bit overwhelming. In the early stages I would give them 3-4 common collocates and/or examples for each noun. I know it's generally difficult to put a finger on them but unfortunately with many near-synonyms the difference is purely collocational.

 Photo by USS John C. Stennis (CVN 74) 
on Flickr
According to www.just-the-word.com, the most frequent noun collocates of the adjective routine are check, maintenance, test and operation. Perhaps I wouldn't give operation at this stage but stick to the first three as they all have to do with checking something for no special reason - just because you have to do it. I think based on these collocates, a generalisation can be made as to how it's used. I'd say of the three adjectives, routine has the most restricted use as it goes only with a handful of nouns.

Photo by @sandymillin 
via eltpics

For usual I would provide the following examples on the board:
It's ____er than usual 
(October is warmer than usual this year)
As usual, he arrived late.
If you always meet your friend at the same you can say "let's meet at the usual time"

Intuitively, I thought usual is the most common of the three but according to this tool www.wordcount.org it turns out that regular is more common. Regular is used in:
on a regular basis 
at regular intervals 
 regular customer 
You also need regular exercise to stay healthy and fit
I am sure the students would also be familiar with the term regular verbs :)

(These examples are from the Longman Dictionary)

It's difficult to extrapolate a rule here but perhaps you can point out that we use regular when we talk about something that you do every week / every month - it has to do with time intervals.

I know students like the safety of cut-and-dried rules but unfortunately knowing the difference between near-synonyms is often simply knowing what goes with what. Likewise, in Hebrew there are also words that may seem identical to English speakers, for example different Hebrew words for picking fruit/vegetables. Ask learners to imagine they had to explain the difference to an English speaker and why one goes with olives and another verb with oranges. They'd be stuck. They would find that the difference between them is not their denotational meaning but rather how they are used, i.e what they go (=collocate) with. Does it help in any way?

Do you think my answer was helpful?

My article Lexical Density in English in Modern English Teacher 2012, vol 21(1) addresses the issue of synonymy in more detail.
For more concordance tools and online dictionaries see Essential Lexical Tools on this blog.

Image credits
Both images are licensed under a Creative Commons Licence [CC-BY-NC-2.0]


  1. hi leo

    helpful advice i would say :)

    what i find tricky with tools like just-the-word is judging which frequent words to use. for example "usual way' is most frequent followed by "more usual", then "usual for" and then your first example of "than usual". "as usual" is not listed. the definite article also appears a lot with "usual way".

    recently what i did with a TOEIC class is use just-the-word to check the frequency of some noun-noun collocates, it was interesting to compare this with the examples from the textbook. since i did not have a projector hooked to the computer the students had to crowd round the monitor, not ideal, but with a projector going through the example sentences would be useful.

    what would be great is being able to output the results of a search on just-the-word into a gap filler program so that students could practice putting in the missing words they are learning. if i had some coding ability i would take a look at the api they provide.


    1. If you're talking about the concordances generated when you click on any of the results in just-the-word, mura, you can create a gap-fill of that particular missing word on Lexical Tutor, which if you search for a word, uses the same BNC.

    2. hi tyson,
      thanks for pointer, is it called the I-D Word identification quiz? looks handy. must remember to check Lexical Tutor site regularly as they keep updating and adding new toos.

    3. No, I was refering to the Concordancer. That you search for the term you're looking for and then choose the option that is 'gaps'. It's very basic in how it results.

  2. Thank you for your comment, Mura and thank you, Tyson, for replying to Mura's comment :)
    When using corpus I think you should always balance frequency with considerations of usefulness. For example, the most frequent noun collocates of "reckless" are
    1. behaviour
    2. disregard
    3. driving

    However I would give only behaviour and driving as examples to a group of intermediate learners.

    I didn't know about I-D Output - thanks for pointing it out. But I need to play with it a bit more, not sure how it works and why you need to input lots of text if it only gives concordances for one key word...
    Anyhow, using gapped concordances will be a subject of one of my future posts.

    Thank you, gentlemen, for joining in this discussion. See you in Paris very soon.



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