I think most writers do. We aren’t content with just saying something is blue, we want to give you an exact shade so you are seeing what we are seeing
The interesting thing, though, is that many people think that “synonym” means the same thing as “equal to”.
According to Merriam-Webster.com, the very first definition listed somewhat supports that idea. But the crucial part is the modifier “or nearly the same”.
Definition of synonym
- one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses
In English, as in many languages, there are nuances of meaning that can subtly change what is being said. Take, for instance, the word ‘deflate’.
Merriam Webster sometimes does a synonym discussion, considering those nuances:
Synonym Discussion of deflate
contract, shrink, condense, compress, constrict, deflate mean to decrease in bulk or volume. contract applies to a drawing together of surfaces or particles or a reduction of area or length <caused her muscles to contract>. shrink implies a contracting or a loss of material and stresses a falling short of original dimensions <the sweater will shrink when washed>. condense implies a reducing of something homogeneous to greater compactness without significant loss of content <condense the essay into a paragraph>. compress implies a pressing into a small compass and definite shape usually against resistance <compressed cotton into bales>. constrict implies a tightening that reduces diameter <the throat is constricted by a tight collar>. deflate implies a contracting by reducing the internal pressure of contained air or gas <deflate the balloon>.
Would it feel right to say that we “condensed the balloon”, “constricted the balloon” or “compressed the balloon”? No, we deflate balloons. While those other words are synonyms and have similar meanings, they don’t quite evoke the image we want to create. I’m not sure I would even know what you meant if you used any of those alternate choices for this example. Granted, this is a little more obvious example since we are so familiar with the idea of deflating a balloon.
Let’s look at something a little less obvious. I once read a fan fic written by someone who was not a native English speaker. She mentioned that someone was “jealous of the way a brother treated his sister”, and a reviewer took exception to that. The trouble was, likely the writer had checked a thesaurus and found jealousy listed as a synonym of envy.
Native English speakers, though, are more aware of a subtle difference. Usually we are ‘envious’ without any ill intent toward another person. We simply want what they have, but aren’t necessarily looking to take it away from them – we want it ALSO. Jealousy, on the other hand, is usually an angrier, selfish word. They have what we want – how can we take it away from them so we have it instead. Envious people don’t usually kill anyone to get what they want. Jealous people have been known to do that. The close relationship shared between a brother and sister – we might envy it, but few would normally be jealous of it.
Definition of envy
- painful or resentful awareness of an advantage enjoyed by another joined with a desire to possess the same advantage
Definition of jealous
- a : intolerant of rivalry or unfaithfulnessb : disposed to suspect rivalry or unfaithfulness
- : hostile toward a rival or one believed to enjoy an advantage
That being the case, we should always make sure we understand those subtle differences in meaning before we use unfamiliar words.
There is a popular young adult fantasy series out, and I love the books/stories, but it drives me batty that the author often uses the wrong word. Not wrong in the sense of ‘there’s a better choice’, but wrong in ‘that doesn’t mean what you think it means and it doesn’t make sense in this sentence/context’.
Choose your words carefully, and make sure you know what they mean.
This also comes into play in a different way when we have someone speaking or moving.
We can use ‘he said’ or ‘she said’, but that is boring, plain vanilla language. And it doesn’t give us any sense of how the person is saying it. Are they speaking timidly, angrily, evasively?
“I didn’t mean that,” he said.
“I didn’t mean that,” he retorted.
‘Retorted’ makes the statement more forceful. If this conversation isn’t already an argument, it could easily become one. Emotion might kick this discussion to another level. We don’t see that with ‘he said’. ‘He said’ is merely pointing out that we have been misunderstood. Using an exclamation mark instead of a comma would help, but it could still be a peaceful remark (I had a slip of the tongue.). ‘Retorted’ emphasizes an exclamation mark and makes it clear that the discussion is energetic at the very least and could get heated. But if that sentence were spoken in a complete monotone, only the word choice would guide the reader/listener in knowing how the dialogue was intended.
We have so many words to choose from, why use the same boring ones over and over? As they say, variety is the spice of life!
It’s only words, and words are all I have
To take your heart away.
[Words by the Bee Gees, written by the Bee Gees]
Words lyrics © Warner/Chappell Music, Inc., Universal Music Publishing Group