Writing Reality: Synonyms and Antonyms

06/01/2014 at 05:50 (Personal) (, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , )


Our language is wonderfully diverse. For every one word or phrase assigned to something – whether in description, as a preposition, to denote an action – there are countless others with the same or similar meanings, but different graphemic / phonetic constructs, waiting to be used. As any writer will tell you, it’s often the most agonizing part of the whole process … trying to find that one word which will encapsulate the message you wish to convey, in a sentence.

Collectively, these words/phrases are known as synonyms. Their function, broadly speaking, is to add flavour to communication in speech and writing. If we were all to use the same words in our vocabulary then conversation would soon become strained; in text, all prose/verse would seem repetitive and lacking depths of meaning. We would know what to expect from others, with little chance of gratification from being surprised/charmed by a turn of phrase not our own. Synonyms step in to alleviate this wearing-out of language.

When a word or phrase is described as being synonymous with another word or phrase of the same language, its meaning can be taken as the same or suggestive of it:

“His name became synonymous with that of the Devil” (suggestive of evil in a character, through deeds)

Beautiful is an adjective. All well and good when used in the simple sentence, “She was beautiful.” Now imagine it being repeated across a more complex sentence structure, with additional features thrown in: “She was beautiful, with a beautiful nose and beautiful eyes.” By this point, beautiful is starting to look a bit strained around the eyes itself. To liven things up, it can be substituted after its first appearance with “a cute nose and lovely eyes.” Even these words are on the generic side, and don’t really add much in terms of describing the features mentioned – but they are synonyms of beautiful nonetheless, in the denotative sense of being attractive, and in their positive connotations.

Context is a pivotal factor when choosing to replace one word with another. Fine and pleasing are synonyms of beautiful, but they might not make as much of an impact when describing someone’s features or personality. Substituting it for foxy when describing the appeal of an ancient church, wouldn’t quite make the right impression; likewise, bewitching has connotative links to magic and enchantment, which would seem unsuitable in the religious context.

Bright is an adjective, and can be replaced with glittering, shining, aflame, vivid, argent, etc. However, as argent is associative with the colours silver and white (from the noun Argentum, chem., the metal silver) it may not be the best synonym to use in lieu of bright, when describing a pair of eyes. It would however fit the context of a night sky, and a full moon.

When writing, take into consideration the environmental / lifestyle factors that could affect someone’s personality, appearance and decisions, which in turn will influence your word choices. If the context was to be the description of a feral hunter or mercenary warrior on the campaign trail, chances are you could be looking for words that will reflect a life of guerilla movements, outdoor living conditions and tight rationing. In terms of appearance, you could describe them as being strong, but it doesn’t convey much in terms of imagery.

“He was sinewy with muscle” vs. “He was brawny with muscle.” Though both denote strength and a compact, toughened physical form, the word brawny is more closely associated with the image of size and muscle mass. For swiftness of movement and tenacity in battle, the character is more likely to need / to have built up a lean muscle mass that resembles steel rope, braided and sinewy, as opposed to large blocks of muscle that might actually slow them down and make them more conspicuous in battle. This is only a personal observation, of course; but I choose sinewy over brawny to suggest a lean style of living, reflected in the physical form of the warrior / hunter.

Synonyms can be used to denote authority: “It is the first time British police are being issued with the “non-lethal weapon“‘ – as opposed to, ‘…are being given the “non-lethal weapon.”‘ This report refers to police Personal Protective Equipment, or PPE. To issue is a verb – synonyms include to give or to dole out, but neither fit the professional context of the action and the impersonal tone of the text. There is technically nothing wrong with using the word “give”, as it is a verb and concerns supplying someone with something. But it doesn’t have the same authoritative ring of issue and to give is more closely associated with gifts and presents, or acts of charity.

In obituaries and epitaphs, words synonymous with death can be used as part of a euphemism, to deliver a softened approach to a subject that is taboo for some (where open discussion is concerned), and raw for those in mourning. As the concept of death can be surrounded by negative feelings (grief, anger, loss) and the word itself holds connotations of fear and the unknown, it is useful to have words synonymous with it (when placed in context), which deliver a message that isn’t quite so direct. These synonyms often have restful and positive meanings, or humour intended to take away the sting of loss; they might also reflect the religious beliefs of the one who has died / their family.

passing away
(courtesy of http://kaionegal.typepad.com/)

In contrast to synonyms, we have antonyms. These are words that stand in oppositional meaning to others:

love hate

The word itself is an antonym of synonym, and is just as reliant on context. Hot is a word that can be made relevant to the weather when placed in a meteorological context – say, the comparison of two countries’ climates. But it can also be used to describe someone’s physical attractiveness or success, in a colloquial sense.
When seeking the antonym of a word, be aware of unintentional connotations becoming linked to your desired message.

There are three types of antonym.

Graded antonyms could visually resemble railway lines on a map, with the starting point at one end and the destination at the other. In between lie calling points to be stopped at first. Between Love and Hate, there is Like. In the context of a dimmer switch on a light, there is an Increase – Decrease of illumination, before On / Off occurs.

Relational antonyms cannot exist without one another.
You may greet someone with Hello, and bid them Goodbye
A door may be Opened and then Closed (or Shut, if you want a synonym.)

In weight-training, Flexion is the bending of a joint, bringing the bones that create it closer together. Its counter (or antonym) is Extension – straightening the joint out. Likewise, there is Elevation and Depression (raising / lowering.)

Complimentary antonyms have only one outcome – words meet and greet without gradients of meaning between them.

You can either be Alive or Dead.
Something can be True or False
A light can be flicked On or Off

If you are one, you cannot be the other; these are ‘absolute’ opposites.” – Kristin Denham and Anne Lobeck, Linguistics for Everyone: An Introduction, 2nd ed. Wadsworth, 2013

Be careful when using your Thesaurus. Overdoing it on the fancy variations doesn’t make a text look more professional, and may actually harm the rhythm of your words. As ever, consider context – what message are you trying to convey? what connotations are linked to the word/words you wish to substitute? – and read aloud what you have written. Sometimes, the word we’re trying to avoid is the most likely candidate, with the truest message, after all.

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9 Comments

  1. Karen said,

    This is an excellent explanation! I especially like your last paragraph as it brilliantly concludes your expositions. […paragraph is the icing on the cake.]
    Thank you! đŸ™‚

  2. eden baylee said,

    Great post. I’ve always been a fan of the Thesaurus, but agree with your cautionary note. Being too fancy or using words that don’t fit, even though the meaning may ‘work’ only shows … the writer probably used a Thesaurus.

    eden

  3. Gunmetal Geisha said,

    As always, executed with great skill and verve.

  4. Julie Christine said,

    Brava for another beautiful post!

    I’ve nominated you for the Versatile Blogger Award. Thank you for being such an inspiration. Look for my pingback on Monday.

    Cheers, Julie

    About the VBA: http://versatilebloggeraward.wordpress.com/vba-rules/

    • raishimi33 said,

      That’s very kind of you, Julie – glad to be an inspiration for something other than drinking rum đŸ˜‰ Thanks very much for this.

  5. A. B. Davis said,

    Great point about the one word you’re trying to avoid is likely the best representation of your meaning, as it is usually the first one that your instinct drew up. I hope I am not the only one who has overused a thesaurus before and had to learn my lesson by, first, making the mistake :/
    But I do think reading aloud dramatically helps with this;, hearing one’s own voice sounding like a pretentious asshole who really doesn’t know anything helps to bring us down a peg or two lol
    Lastly, I loved the bit on antonyms.
    Awesome post!

  6. Annecdotist said,

    Extremely useful post, Rachel. There’s a novel I’m trying to remember that it is the voice of a non-native English speaker who has picked up all his clever words from a thesaurus beautifully illustrating how the words can be right but so wrong

    • raishimi33 said,

      Thank you! I tend to write these entries around certain aspects of writing/linguistics which I encounter while working on my novel. I’ve gone hunting through a Thesaurus before for that ‘perfect word’, only to find I already had it, and it fitted the context.

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