Monday, 29 June 2015

Discussions--Series 19--ELT Professionals Around the World

Please read Post 68 and then come back here. Thanks.

Discussions—Series Nineteen
Topic 56

can synonyms be substituted for each other?
Kolipaka Lakshminarayanan retired from Sri Venkateswara College of Engineering, Sri Perumbudur, Thamizh Nadu
Top Contributor

What should be the choice here:
Health is too important to be_______
a. disregarded b. ignored c. neglected d. rejected
My choice is ‘c’, not ‘b’.

Is there a dictionary or source book that will help distinguish the delicate meaning differences of synonymous words?

Koli, at some point you will have to know the context of the statement. With no context I would say c. also, but a. and b. could be used if I constructed a context that would call for them to be the pragmatically correct answer, the one that fits the previous part of the conversation or text. I can also imagine a context where d. is correct.

I agree - what is the context? Where, when, who etc.... That's the big problem with multiple choice type tests. I get so many requests similar to this that it drives me crazy. The answer depends both on the context. Plus - these types of questions really aren't meant to truly help students learn (the higher goal of all assessment), they are just meant to trick. Questions should be totally transparent and clear. 

Synonyms can be substituted, but only depending on the context on which that substitution takes place. Context in its fullest sense - the situation, the intent, the culture, who is speaking, where and when.

@Nelson: I really doubt there's more to the question than what K.L. has provided. The test was obviously written by a non-native speaking English teacher. This is an all too common occurrence in many countries and only serves to promote the (test writers') interlinguistic presumptions, or, in this case, their ignorance. 

@Koli: While even (d) would be perfectly acceptable within a particular context, I'd be inclined to go for 'c' too only because it adds to the idea of ignore or disregard: failing to look after. In poorly written tests such as this, the skill is as much vocabulary as it is mind reading---trying to figure what the test writer was thinking when he wrote the question. I would encourage you to bring it up (anonymously, if you have to) with those responsible for administrating the test.

Visitng Professor at Tecnun, Engineering School of the University of Navarra, Founder and Director of
"Health is too important to be neglected" would be a perfectly normal utterance by a native speaker and I don't see why this question would be considered to be produced by a non-native speaker. The other options may be grammatical but it really doesn't mean anything to "reject health", but that's not a grammatical problem, it's a lexical problem. "To disregard health" is a similar problem while "to ignore health" makes sense, but is not as good an answer as "neglect". With multiple choice questions the student must choose the BEST answer, not the correct answer, since there can be more than one correct answer. Ferd and Nelson are right that "c" is the best answer.

Lecturer at South-West College
Top Contributor
I would accept both B and C.

EFL teacher at Zhejiang Shaoxing University of Foreign Languages
Hi, I agree with Ferd, having seen test items like this myself too. 

Ignored and neglected are equally good answers, disregarded is too, it's only that this word itself is less common that makes it maybe appear less appropriate. If you google this, the phrase with neglected gets 18 hits, ignored gets 26; compared to 78,200 hits for "health is too important to be" without either word. This is clearly not a significant difference in this case and shows this question does not have a single correct answer. Btw, there are 36,000 hits with the next word being "left", so this would have made a much better test item (as in left to someone). 

I've known teachers write items like this where the "correct" answer is the one that appeared in a text that semester, regardless of how appropriate the other answers are - and even had to tell teachers this correct answer was wrong as they'd put the wrong preposition before their target word, making their "correct" option grammatically incorrect. 

Unfortunately there is the idea that multiple choice questions are easier for students, so some educators prefer them, but as they have little or no training in testing they are not even aware that these are the hardest type of question items to write well and that open questions are much easier to write and usually more reliable and valid too.

Thanks. All of you cleared the air, so to say, regarding the choice selection and the construction of multiple choice test items with a view to infusing objectivity in testing or to avoid subjectivity in assessing learners' ability to select a given word to complete a sentence. 

Thank you, Jeffrey, Nelson and David for pointing out the significance of the context. Will you please create context for my sentence where all the four choices can fit in; I hop I'm not asking too much of you. Ferd, I'm the guilty party: testing learner assimilation of synonymous words is a most difficult skill for a test item writer,, or at least for me. 

I agree with you, Caroline, with what you say in your second paragraph, in particular.

Here is more. Dictionaries seem to be of little help: 
(A) Can ‘ignore’ and ‘neglect’ be substituted for each other? It seems so: Advanced 
Learner’s Dictionary has the following: 
ignore = to pay no attention to 
1. He ignored all the ‘No Smoking’ signs and lit up a cigarette. 
2. I made a suggestion but they chose to ignore it.. 
3. We cannot afford to ignore their advice. 

disregard = to treat something as unimportant 
4. The board disregarded my recommendations. 
5. Safety rules were disregarded. 

neglect = to not give enough attention to something 
6. Dance has been neglected by television. 
7. She has neglected her studies. 

(You may notice that these sentences are not placed in context.)

(B) As I see it, ‘disregard’ can be used instead of ‘ignore’ in 1-4. Not in 6 and 7, can it? 
But 5 confuses me: I’d use ‘neglect’ rather than ‘ignore’ as substitute. This is how I 
discriminate between ‘ignore’ and ‘neglect’: 
ignore = to pay no attention to what can/may be done 
(the consequences of which need not be very serious) 
neglect= to pay no attention to what must/should be done 
(the consequences of which will in all probability be more serious). 
By the same logic, 
7. She has neglected her studies 
and 7a. She has ignored her studies 
carry different messages, don’t they? And to my ears, these sound ‘odd’: 
1. He neglected all the ‘No Smoking’ signs and lit up a cigarette. 
2. I made a suggestion but they chose to neglect it.. 
3. We cannot afford to neglect their advice. 
4. The board neglected my recommendations. 

Thanks once again for sharing your knowledge and experiene with me and other members of the ELT community.
 Rod M., Bridget M. like this

Roget's Thesaurus offers many synonyms and near synonyms, but don't explain their fine differences, unfortunately. I guess one must know instinctively which one to use and which not.

@Jeffrey Diamond: You wrote: "To disregard health" is a similar problem while "to ignore health" makes sense, but is not as good an answer as "neglect".

Not as good? For the sake of contention, I'm arguing that that response may reflect the mind (lifestyle choices, age, or genetic predisposition) of the test writer---the idea that one's good health is something one has to consciously maintain. Don't the vast majority of us who live a reasonably active and healthy lifestyle simply ignore matters of health?

The ambiguity of such a question is not something I would expect to find on any TOEFL, IELTS, CEF, CLB or other language test written by native speakers as they're generally carefully scrutinized before use. One issue in test writing is positive backwash---the answer should be obvious and help the student understand the distinction---but in this case, as was mentioned, a distinguishing context is surprisingly absent. The test seems to be written solely for the purpose of sorting and selecting students.
Rod M. likes this

@Kolipaka: You wrote: "Ferd, I'm the guilty party: testing learner assimilation of synonymous words is a most difficult skill for a test item writer, or at least for me."

I didn't understand you at first as you didn't claim to have written the question but to your credit, at least you attempt to seek outside opinion. To avoid ambiguity, I suggest embedding a definition, an antonym, or any other defining criteria into the question:

"Just as careless people let their financial and personal problems become worse, they also tend to ___ their health."
a. disregard b. ignore c. neglect d. reject
In this case, [let + become worse] = (also) [neglect].

She diligently cared for her ailing mother but she _____ her own health.

Lakshminarayanan - as all have said, more or less - a, b and c are all possible according to context. And - also as all have more or less implied (or said) a badly constructed test item.

However - even worse - d. is also possible - correct in the right context. Which means that the test item is even worse than I originally thought.

The fledging political party, in the development of their manifesto, decided that Health was too important to be rejected - they had to include it in their 8-Point Plan.
Ferd R. likes this

Top Contributor
Perfect synonyms do not exist . What is commonly accepetd as synonyms are words interchangeable within the same context without altering the meaning of the message .There are no two words which could perfectely replace one another in all possible contexts .

Hmmmm Irina - that's a very absolute (an romantic) claim!

I'm not sure. It is like saying that a word never has one meaning but a million meanings, zillions of alterations depending on its context. How would we ever agree on usage?

I think there are synonyms in the normal sense of the word. I'll leave it for others to suggest them. What comes to mind right away is something like mother and mom. Or how about truck and lorry?

David ,you may have a point shouldn't be absolute , especially when it comes to language. It's infinitely interpretable . I can percive though a slight difference between mom and mother , although both words indicate the same person .It's a difference on the emotional level I would say . As to what lorry and truck are concerned , lorry is British English while truck is American English . Buy yes.... they practically mean the same ,without any emotional conotations . Your examples are nouns and ..."a rose by any other name would smell as sweet " anyway . How about adjectives ? Can you think of any ?

What about.....huge/massive/enormous/vast/gigantic/colossal......?

@Rod: I had the same thought in regard to 'd'.

Years ago, a student in China preparing for a national college English exam once brought such ambiguities to my attention. In reviewing previous years' exam questions and answers, he'd come across half a dozen. I told him he should get bonus points for noticing them including spelling and grammatical errors. To my astonishment, there was almost one per page.

Thanks, Ferd, for indicating a possibility of improving a test item on synonyms and the examples as well.

Doesn't 'collocation' come into the picture with regard to adjectives? Can we say:
He is enormous/vast/colossal.
The implications are colossal/massive.

I guess it all depends on your belief system and the way you look at things. But in general, I'm against sliding into complete subjectivism (professionally, not artistically) and saying there is never any agreement on the meaning of words and we all experience meaning personally. It all then becomes a Husserl like phenomenological buffet and language descends into the quagmires of deconstructivism. Read William Gaas and you'll get my point, especially his On Being Blue - a whole book about the color blue and its meaning.
Your comment brings to mind Gloria Stein's "a rose, is a rose, is a rose" She once in a Paris review described what she meant by that and it was exactly along the lines of your thinking. That only the thing itself has freedom and independent meaning. The word is so many different things to different people.

Adjectives - what about small/little? Don't they mean the same thing? Usage is another thing but there absolute meaning is the same, I would say. Same with Bridget's examples but with everything, once you lay context into it - everything becomes unique.

A very wise man long ago noted "wisdom is calling things by their right name". Hasn't changed much over many millenia. Precision is precious in language, however I still think there are synonyms, just depends I guess how thin you slice them :)

I back up Irina 99% - I came across a true synonym pair a few months back - but silly me didn’t note them down.

Irina did not say “It is like saying that a word never has one meaning but a million meanings, zillions of alterations depending on its context. How would we ever agree on usage?” – she said : “Perfect synonyms do not exist .. There are no two words which could perfectely replace one another in all possible contexts".

Because of that part of what Irina, said, then I can see a certain amount of inconsistency in this “What is commonly accepetd as synonyms are words interchangeable within the same context without altering the meaning of the message.”

As Irina said, pairs such as “mother” and “mom”, “father” and “dad” – even “aunt” and “auntie” are not synonyms. They differ in “emotiveness” (the amount of feeling words express), social usages (formal vs informal, for example) and to some extent syntactic properties. True synonyms replace each other in all ways.

As for “truck” and “lorry” – this is even more complex. At one level, they are dialect words that have the same reference. Having said that, however, “lorry” has a specific meaning (and contrasts with "truck", “van”, “semitrailer”, “car”, etc. in the UK), while “truck” has a range of meanings in the US and the UK (let alone Australia et alia), such as:

small wheel/roller such as on a gun-carriage – by extension a pivoting frame at either end of a railway carriage to allow the axel to swivel – by extension the part that joins the wheels of a skateboard or roller skates to the deck; etc.

small wagon or cart or two-wheeled whellbarrow – by extension a platform with wheels/casters used in theater - by extension a flat-bed railway carriage – by extension an open-bed truck/lorry – by extension any similar vehicle for carrying cargo

“Lorry” and “truck” are good examples of words that are synonyms in the dialect sense in only part of the range of one of the words (“truck”).

Even words like “big”, “huge”, “massive”, “large”, “enormous”, “vast”, “gigantic”, “colossal” (etc. ) are not “true synonyms”. They have semantic differences, and we choose them to give “colour” to the real or abstract bigness that is being described.

“big” is neutral, if you like, however – and very crudely put - “huge” refers to extra large size in all ways, “massive” has a “weighty” feeling, “large” has a lot of girth, “vast” is “spread out a lot”, “gigantic” is (obviously) like a giant – as is “colossal”, though “gigantic” gives the feeling of height, while colossal combines this with massiveness.

The same goes for “slim”, “slender”, “skinny”, “thin” – each adjective has a different colour and therefore gives a different impression/aspect to the “thinness” referred to. Of course, this is in the eye of the beholder; a skinny person for me might be a slender person for someone else. “Fat”, “chubby”, “plump”, “obese” likewise differ in how they colour the description.

“Small”, “little”, “wee”, “tiny”, “teeny-weeeny”, etc. – these also don’t mean the same thing. “Small” is “neutral” – a “small boy” is not the same as a “little boy” – “little” is a diminutive, while “small” refers simply to size (or lack thereof). We say “little brother!” and “little sister” to refer to someone who is younger than us – and – almost jokingly – to someone who literally is smaller than us. “What a nice little girl you are!” has a very different meaning from “What a nice small girl you are!”. This “diminutive” aspect of “little” is why we use “little” to refer to certain types of people as “little people”, and not “small people”. And – last but not least – we use “little” to refer to amounts (“We have a little bit of cake left – anyone want to finish it off?” – “We have a small bit of cake” refers to the size, not the amount.

In other words – the absolute meaning of a word is its own meaning, not reference to an absolute “external to language” object. “…once you lay context into it - everything becomes unique” – because it is already unique. Context is a mathematical equation : Context = [what the environment leads us to put into the message ] + [the semantic colour we put into the message] +/- [what the listener/reader understands].

Lakshminarayanan brought up the word “collocation” – an overused word if I ever saw one. However, assuming that collocation in the case of adjectives [and every other word, for that matter, where meaning relationships are concerned] – then words “collocate” to the semantics/colour that the speaker/writer wants us the listeners/readers to feel and understand.

And – as David says – though turning it into the positive side of the coin – we have a common code (for English speakers it is English) that we all learn and use in order to communicate with each other, and that in 99.99999% of times we can be sure that anyone who speaks our language will be able to decode perfectly. If I say “I caught a whopping great big fish the other day”, I know that any native English speaking person will understand me perfectly, and will understand the function of every single word in the sentence – and that I won’t have to then spend five minutes explaining what I mean.

“The word is so many different things to different people.” But it can only be so because we already know what the word means, and therefore can “play” with the word because we can be sure that the others can recognize the play (and if we aren’t sure – we have to sign post special uses).

Having said that – when dialect differences come into play, then that is another story. If in one dialect “whopping” is not used in this way (1) normally speakers of other dialects can get the message anyway, even if they find the usage strange, and (2) if they don’t – and they really want to know – they ask.

In the vast majority of cases (99,9999% of cases?), synonym is not to be understood as “completely interchangeable), but more as – in some situations the two words can be used without really changing the message (even if there is always a slight change) – but in other situations, or even in most situations, e.g. “truck” vs “lorry”, “big” vs “colossal”, “small” vs “little”, the words are not interchangeable and have strong differences.

I still wish I could think of the example of “true synonyms” of a few months back.

That's my book for the morning.

Editor, Your English Supplement (Yes) & Tutor, UNED
Amongst Spanish grammarians there is the notion (myth) that if two or more words mean exactly the same thing all but one will eventually disappear. This may explain why a Spanish thesaurus is much smaller than an English one. We seem to love collecting synonyms.
Anyway, I would say that synonyms seek out a niche for themselves so that they are never perfect equivalents. Often this is related to variety (US vs. UK, for instance) or register. Sometimes it is simply based on euphony. We tend to say 'little sister' and 'baby brother' more than 'baby sister' and 'little brother' because of their respective assonance and alliteration.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

It is not only a myth among Spanish linguists - it is widespread among all linguists who "believe" in the principle of "efficiency of communciation".

There is some evidence of synonyms disappearing in English because of that - that is to say - there is some basis in fact. "Hue and cry", "let or hindrance" are examples of synonyms used in legal language (in general one is Englsih/Germanic and the other Norman French or Latin). In everyday language either one or the other has disappeared (in these two examples "hue" "shout, give a call of alarm, etc" and "let" "hinder". have disappeared).

One reason is that "let" "hinder" became a homynym of "let" "allow" - opposites that ended up being pronounced the same way. One had to go.

"Little sister" vs "baby brother" - interesting difference. Where I come from this doesn't work . "Baby sister" and "baby brother" literally mean that they are babies (though can both can be used to older - even adult - brothers/sisters - often jokingly), while "little sister" and "little brother" mean the same as "younger/youngest sister/brother" - and (often jokingly) a sister or brother who is smaller than me.

<He is enormous>

These make me think of his physique. But I wouldn't say "He is vast." or colossal. Maybe he is enormous if he had been on a 6,000-calorie diet for 6 years.


I think we should give a specific meaning to each word. Sure it wouldn't be the totality of each person's meaning, but it could be the common elements of each's. I would say that 'small' includes its comparison to other similar articles, and 'little' would be a more absolute measure.

Surely, the discussion is getting interestinger by the hour! Thanks, everyone,
Or "Curiouser and curiouser!"

Rod, I would humbly suggest that our desire for elegant variation trumps efficiency of communication most of the time and that most legal merisms simply see each binominal element pushed into a niche meaning (fit and proper, sole and exclusive, alter and change, bribery and corruption and a long etc.).

If you don't like my baby brother, little sister point, can you accept
bean bag (alliteration) vs. sag bag (rhyme)
fake fur (alliteration) vs. fun fur (alliteration)
fist-fight (alliteration) vs. punch-up (assonance)
hissy fit (assonance) vs. a temper tantrum (alliteration)
and so on?
 Rod Mitchell likes this

The amount of opinions on the initial question "can synonyms be substituted for each other?" is impressing .
I must admit that every each comment has “talked” to me .
I neither entirely agree or disagree . One of the reasons is that I'm not specialized in one or another field of linguistics . Had I been though , I would find it very difficult to entirely embrace one or another opinion . There are too many disciplines involved . This renders the whole issue endless and...endlessly challenging !
It's wonderful !

Kolipaka, 'collocations' indeed. Good for you. Most of this conversation is on a flat grammatical (two dimensional) adjectives-describe-nouns level. No one has delved into fluency. English mastery operates on a completely different, idiomatic level (three dimensional) dictated by collocations. At this level synonyms can't usually be substituted for one another. Cheerful Christmas and Merry New Year to you all.

My choice in Mr. Kolipaka's question is C ," neglected "

Does the author of this multiple choice exercise provide an answer key ? If yes , what is it ?

The whole premise is wrong. Any educated native speaker would waver between c or b, so why on earth try to get learners to differentiate them?
As someone who writes exercises, including multiple-choice ones, I know what's happened here. The idea with an a-d choice is to have one answer that is out-of-the-stadium wrong, a second that is clearly wrong, a third that is close (but-no-cigar) and of course the right answer. The exercise compiler has got the first two (d, a) and of course the right answer but slipped up in picking the almost right answer. It sometimes happens to me that in a a-d multiple choice I come up with the easy three but it's the wrong answer that separates the sheep from the goats that's the hard one. I'd change c. to "forgotten" and then the right answer is clearly b.

Nelson wrote: "I think we should give a specific meaning to each word."

We inevitably all do which is part of the problem. It's up to dictionary writers, not to authoritatively assign definitions, but rather to track how we alter or add to the meanings of words. A good dictionary of synonyms will highlight these subtle distinctions in meanings.

Irina, I'd stated my choice 'c' in the discussion piece itself.

<<Rod, I would humbly suggest that our desire for elegant variation trumps efficiency of communication most of the time and that most legal merisms simply see each binominal element pushed into a niche meaning (fit and proper, sole and exclusive, alter and change, bribery and corruption and a long etc.).>>

I am completely with you – legal language of course is special – and it is important for words to have a clear “unique” usage in law/contracts etc., so as to avoid ambiguity. The same goes for engineering specifications, medicine, and so on.
My point about “baby brother” etc. was not to “denigrate” your point – which was why I said “interesting” – the “baby brother” versus “little sister” contrast simply doesn’t work where I come from. The other items you list make what you mean crystal clear – and are very important in any discussion of meaning, meaning association, sound association, why certain words either tend to go together pr are deliberately put together, and so on.

That other interesting part of language use – that the “poetry” of the language is many-faceted.

There are also the “order collocations”, like “mum and dad”, “mother and father”~”father and mother” vs “brother and sister”, “uncle and aunt” – and variations of these. There is a “natural order” (= the order we use when we produce these combinations without paying attention to what we are saying) and the “unnatural order” – the order we put things into when we think about how we want to put things.

Even though most kin combinations like these are male and female, with “mum and dad” it is female + male – but of course we can change the order for various reasons.

My background is not only in teaching English as a Second/Foreign language (and language learning myself), but more importantly in Analytical, Comparative, Historical and Applied Linguistics in a variety of languages.

An important part of this is being trained int how to work out the meanings of words not just from what we "feel" or "think" the meaning is, but also - and more importantly - through the typical situations we find words in and why words are used. We are all too often fixed so much on the reception (listening/reading) side of the equation that we forget that half of the communication is the production.

That is to say - words go into any given context (a) because their meanings are appropriate for that context and therefore (b) the speaker/writers "deliberately" [either consciously or subconsciously] choose the words for the context. Adter that, the receiver decodes the message - and in general the decoding is "seamless".

If you really want to get a feel of the meanings of similar meaning words like "small", "little", "teeny", "tiny", "wee", etc., then the "full-blown" linguistic research methodology is to look at as many in-context examples as possible - over a wide range of texts - where possible to ask the people in the contexts why they use a particular word (etc.) - and so to build up an overall picture of each word, its typical social/emotional[etc.] context.

Corpora are one tool in this type of research - but only one of many. Another very important tool is "native speaker intuition". To trust our own feelings as speakers of English (well - any language).

As analystical (and other) linguists have been doing this for quite a few decades now, differences between "small",. "little", etc. are pretty clear to the linguistic world, as are many other aspects of language use.

However, the experience of trainee linguists is that each new generation of linguists has to relearn all this experience - and then take it the next step on.

The real grammar experts in English are not teachers but lawyers.
The last generation of linguistic over-analyzers is well past its zenith of influence and there will never be another wave of that ilk. Hair-splitting detail turns out to be an ineffective way to learn/teach language. Global English is on the rise and it can't be stopped. Simple, effective pattern methods are in demand and replacing current teaching models faster than gasoline evaporates.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

Simple and effective pattern methods have always been around - though unfortuinately the "last generation" is still with us (many are not yet dead).

Simple, effective teaching methods are always the best, as Judy says, particularly for beginners/elementary students. All we as teachers have to be ready for are the questions from students - which we should always answer with accurancy - never fob them off - and also to handle the more [often very] advanced students who really need "hair-splitting" (e.g. non-English awyers who need to beef up their English-for-International-Law).

Global English, on the other hand - is also over its zenith - a fad among some that has run into reality.

* unfortunately, * accuracy, *lawyers.

Comprising more than 80% of the people who used English today (almost 2 billion) Global English is hardly a fad. Also called International English it is quite different from the Modern English we learned, use and teach. Jenkins (200) makes some very good arguments that is no longer appropriate to teach Modern English. Shakespeare used Modern English. It is well past its best before date. It's not the language our students need, it's the language we are most comfortable teaching. .
Are there equal numbers of basic, intermediate and advanced students? Not at all. A good graph depicting ESL/EFL students is a base-wide triangle. By far the bulk of students are basic, much fewer are intermediate and a comparative handful are advanced. Why do we insist on approaching language teaching as if students were or ever will be advanced?
Rod Mitchell likes this

"most kin combinations like these are male and female" - are they?

Ducks and drakes, goose and gander, granny and granddad/grandpa? I wrote an article on the sexism of such expressions some time ago and, if I remember correctly, they came out roughly even. On a superficial search through my mess I couldn't find it but when I do I'll confirm with examples.

I hope I'm not giving the impression of trying pedantically to catch you out, it's just that having gone through the thought process already, I find the matter interesting.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

Editor, Your English Supplement (Yes) & Tutor, UNED
On the other hand, Judy, if you ask most non-natives if they want to study some pidgin proxy or the prestige native variety of English and they'll say, 10:1 they want to learn real English as spoken by Anglos. (I'm sure that would be the result even if you didn't use my ridiculously tendentious wording!).

Global English may not be a fad but Globish most certainly is. The idea that you can remove metaphor and humour from a language and leave anything but a hollow husk is preposterous. If you analyse the seven-minute video that promotes Globish on the Globish website you will see that the found M. Nerriere is unable to keep inside his own restricted vocabulary and even breaks his own "no jokes" rule.
Rod Mitchell likes this

I can't give Globish the time of day but Global English or as Jenkins calls EIL English as an International Language - that is a force to be reckoned with. Teachers might want to become aware of the parameters of the Global language and as always be mindful of what their students need English for.
I'm glad you said 'real English spoken by Anglos'. 10:1 students cant tell the difference between any particular English spoken by any particular native English culture. The patterns or what is always true about any English is the framework that has native speakers flexible with infinite versions of English. This is the information students crave. Teachers might want to become aware of the patterns of English too.

<linguistic over-analyzers>

Most of us over-analyzers (on a limb here) will simplify their pedagogy with experience, be it Chomsky's part-of-speech movement trees, or phonetic concatenation. Some non-analyzers will approach teaching from the other end. My biased opinion is that we should know the answers to the most advanced or curious students' questions.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

"10:1 students can't tell the difference between any particular English spoken by any particular native English culture."

I fully agree, Judy. Here in Spain students often insist on a British rather than American teacher (or occasionally vice-versa) when they are incapable of knowing the difference and completely unaware of the level of cross-fertilization between the two varieties. If asked, I always encourage students to acquire a variety of teachers in terms of accent over their studying career.

Non-analyzer is not the opposite of over-analyzer, it is changing the subject.
No one is off the hook for knowing the answers to the most advanced or curious students. Plying students with inappropriate, irrelevant details about English just because we know them isn't serving them. It is serving us. It is turning a 30 hour course into 10,000 hours because we can.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

Judy : If what you are stating is what Jenkin says, then his arguments have big holes.

First - Elisabethan English is not "Modern English" - it is "Early Modern English". What you and I speak today is "Modern English".

At the time, English was already developing as and international language, following on the footsteps of French - which in European terms had been the International Langauge for some centuries, and remained so until very recently, being the language of Diplomacy, the International Post, and so on.

Second - International English is not "one object" - it is a variety of objects that includes at least three varieties - British English, American English and "Oceanic English" (dominated by Australian English). The desire to develop an "International Global Standard" has not gone anywhere - the reality is that learners of English will either focus on a particular variety (US or UK or whatever), depending on their main international partners, that their own language creates differences in International English anyway, and so on. The theory/ideal of Global English is great - but reality is making it unworkable.

Note that the differences (if any really exist) between so-called "Global English" and "Modern English" are minimal to the umpteenth degree.

Third - Modern English IS the language our students need. Think about it - the USA is still the world's largest economy, which with the UK, Canada, South Africa, Australia, Ireland and New Zealand (I know I haven't covered all bases here) means that Modern English is the most important international language for any company that wants to sell products/do business in English speaking -countries. Sensible companies aim at the language of the countries they sell to - and the langauge of that country.

<<Are there equal numbers of basic, intermediate and advanced students?>>

A good question - however, this is looking at the question the wrong way. In the EFL schools, the bulk of students are at the preintermediate(elementary)-intermediate-upp inermediate levels. This is the level wher students already have a grounding in the language, and then need "professional help" to expand this knowledge. The Upper Intermediate level is that pre-university level (nominally equating secondary school level) where students are independent in language use for most purposes. True beginners are less likely to be in the EFL schools within English-speaking countries, however elsewhere they are common.

An EFL/ESL school is the best place for such intensive coursework to take place; 15 to 25 or so hours a week in class and living in an English-speaking country can work wonders.

However, it is very common for EFL schools in English speaking and outside WEnglsih speaking countries to have advanced to very advanced level, even virtually native speaker, people who aim to have as perfect a level of English as possible, both for living, working and/or studyiong in English speaking countries, but also for the purposes of international business, law, medicine or other fields.

It is common for a school outside English speaking countries (in Spain, Italy and the like) to have not so much a "pyramid" of students, but a more even spread of beginners, intermediate, advanced and very advanced. And the main request [I know - I am in the business] is English for Native Speakers, be these US, UK, India, or wherever.

<<Why do we insist on approaching language teaching as if students were or ever will be advanced?>>

Another good question, and one that I so so many teachers ask themselves.

The answer is simple - because the students themsleves want to be as perfect as they can be - for whatever reason, personal pride, necessity, etc. If the students are to live and work (or study) in an English speaking country, they defintiely need to get as good as they can (perfection is all too often the goal - however unrealistic that might be).

If they are to use English in the international scene, not only will a large number of their contatcs be native English speakers, people like you and me who are speakers of Modern English, but also they potentially will meet non-native speakers with all measures of English, from bilingual through virtually native speaker through excellent though advanced through intermediate, etc.

The reality of this type of communciation is that the only yardstick for communication is Modern English - it is the "standard" against which all non-native speakers measure themselves, particularly as each language that the non-native speakers have creates different colours of non-native speaker English. The non-native English of a Chinese business person can be unintelligible to an Italian business person - and vice versa.

PS - Judy (et al) - please don't confuse "teacher to teacher talk" - "or teacher-trainer to trainee talk" with what we as EFL teachers actually do in EFL classes. 10,000 hours is the full length of time students will take to become really proficient in English - to native-speaker level even. What happens in 30 hours is what can be learnt in 30 hours.

We all adapt how we put something to the audience. I can say to a linguist something like "the past tense form of a verb is in actual fact a modal form, not a tense, in that it shows distance from the present - the here-and-now - as well as reality - what we feel is real or part of the metaphorical "here-and-now". He/she will then take part in a discussion at the same level - or even higher - and work out why in a couple of hours - if that.

In EFL classes, this message would be spread out over Beginners, Intermediate and Advanced levels - over at least 500 or so hours of class - and even more.

<<most kin combinations like these are male and female" - are they?>>

Nicholas - I am one of those who likes being caught out academically - it not only makes me rethink - and either confirm my own ideas or change them or even through further discussion change my ideas AND those of the other person [we can boith be on the wrong track] - but also is a sign of respect from me to you.

"Duck / gander", "goose / gander", "cow / bull", "stallion / mare", "colt / filly" aren't kin-terms. They are gender terms.

Granny~Grandma / Grandad~Grandpa, on the other, are kin-terms (they show are kinship relation).

It would be really interesting to see what you wrote. It is interesting that the "natural" (but variable) order seems to be :

Mum and Dad (Mother and Father)
Grandma and Grandad (Grandmother and Grandfather)

Brother and Sister
Uncle and Aunt

Put this way - you are right - they are 50-50. That'll teach me to believe half-remembered lectures.
Dianna Henshaw likes this

<students can't tell the difference between any particular English>

It doesn't take much study of pronunciation to tell the difference. At intermediate level a sharp student can tell the difference. About the 10:1, I guess it depends on your classes. And books? Outside class I would guess a student can tell the native language of an English speaker if the English speaker is a student of English, with the same L1. American/British English is not too hard to differentiate. I didn't used to be able to easily distinguish British/Australian Englishes, though after meeting those from down under I can distinguish the accents.
It's probably more of a task to figure out where the accent is from, than that there is a difference.
Rod Mitchell likes this

<Plying students with inappropriate, irrelevant details>

That goes against the teacher Hippocrates' Oath. A good amount of this is instigated by the administration, where 'having to' finish a book or other material in a pre-determined amount of time is part of the curriculum.
Probably a practice of giving information when it is needed is best, complementing fluency with its underlying grammatical theory. I think the equation Fluency + Accuracy = Competency can serve as a practitioner's mantra.
Judith M.Rod Mitchell like this

I know from other discussions Judy has been involved in that she also follows :

"... giving information when it is needed is best, complementing fluency with its underlying grammatical theory ... Fluency + Accuracy = Competency can serve as a practitioner's mantra." - as well as "simplification with experience".

We as language teachers use all the tools at our disposal to help our students teach themselves to be proficient in whichever language - and learn to vary which tools we use according to the student.Those of us who have an analytical/applied linguistics background also know how to put this background to good use.

We who have other backgrounds (such as Judy's colours-represent-pronunciation system) put other skills into action that some others of us can't - because backgrounds differ.

And - last but not least - if we are not careful, "it doesn't work for me" can lead to "me" running down other practitioners' methods, simply because "I" have not had the same experiential background and therefore cannot understand and put into practice their methodology. It doesn't mean that the other methodologies are useless or are not worthy of appreciation. It simply means "I the practitioner am lost".

@Bridget --- to me, this list of adjectives strikes as being the degree of 'bigness' in the ascending order--' huge/massive/enormous/vast/gigantic/colossal......? --ending with 'humongous' which is quite a popular word with the 'cool dudes' nowadays!!!

Travailleur indépendant du secteur Enseignement supérieur
How do others deal with the problem of synonyms with students? Personally, I first look at a dictionary of snonyms and follow that up by looking up each word in a good, fairly advanced, dictionary which gives plenty of sample sentences as a pose to short phrases, and from there I choose the word which best seems to suit my needs. This is what I suggest to students, and for those who are really interested, I suggest one of the "production" dictionaries which you can now find on the market.

Synonyms are tricky and strictly not interchangeable. Violating collocations and over-use of a thesaurus is why students sound so weird even when their grammar is correct. If students are taught English works in small groups of words that convey images and to listen for and use words in their natural environments instead of grammar dogma, their speech and writing improves.
Rod that was quite a mouthful. Thank you for sharing your interpretations and opinions.
Rod MitchellNigel P. and 2 others like this

Work with synonyms in class is for the Advanced and Proficiency levels, where we can take time to discuss that various uses of the various words.....using a Thesaurus together, inventing examples and looking at examples provided by the teacher. This is the place for learning all about style and the refinements of language.
At other levels , just keep it simple.

hi Arzoo, it wasn't meant to be in ascending order......just a "top of the head" quick gathering of words, to continue the discussion. Interesting comment are almost right.
Rod Mitchell likes this

<"production" dictionaries>

If students are keeping a student-generated lexicon, they can refer back to it. Their definitions should be easily understandable.
 Rod MitchellChristine T. like this

Kolipaka, I use the Language Activator published by Longman. In the foreward, it says ".....for the active user ..... the need is to satisfy the conditions of appropriate use oneself: to find not merely a word, but with the word, all the conditions which enable us to fit it into a suitable context." I also use a thesaurus and an advanced learners' dictionary together with my ordinqry English dictionary when doing translation work. I hae to admit, I enjoy dictionaries of any sort.

Bridget, whilst I agree that concentrated work on synonyms should be dealt with after an elementary level, I do think that we should be teaching our learners appropriate use of words such as tall v. high, thin v. slim etc.

Oh yes, Christine, absolutely. As it comes up, we deal with it. It is really like a jigsaw, isn't it?
I was speaking about more concentrated work.
Rod Mitchell likes this

You're welcome, Judy. I know in the past you have had serious run-ins with some people because of their refusal to understand.

Synonyms are not all of the same ilk. Those like "small" and "little", "big", "large" and "huge" are part of basic English. As Judy says, "[s]ynonyms are tricky and strictly not interchangeable; you can't say "small sister" when you mean "little sister". The meanings are very different - not even size is nedcessarily part of the equation.

In other words - the definition of synonym, is also a problem. "Small" and "little" are not synonyms; however, I think for most English speaking people, except maybe for specialists, "scarlet" and "crimson" are close synonyms.

Synonyms are best approached (a) as they come up, and (b) otherwise over the whole language learning life of the student, i.e. bit by bit. Sometimes activities focusing on synonyms can be really intersting for both the student and the teacher; I love working aout realising the difference3s of seeming synonyms in all the languages I have learnt / am learning. I get to understand the languages - and so the world of the speakers - that much better.

The learning of synonyms is always best in the context of their environment - and much more interesting, as some of you have said. Also, it is not the difficulty we teachers can make it into. It's a natural part of language, and so students need to enjoy them.
 Judy Thompson likes this

I know, Bridget. I know how Judy can be blunt and to the point.

As you have noticed, I believe in always showing by example.

I was bought up by a father who - when his mother, my grandmother, took him to enrol in high school way back in the days before high school was compulsory, the headteacher/principal looked at both of them and said "Normally people of your colour don't succeed in high school. You're not intelligent enough".

He was more than intelligent enough to go way beyond that, to do very well at school, to prove the headteacher wrong by example, to be a tutor at school for other - white - kids, to look at racism and other ills of society in the eye, not flinch, and all this calmly, quietly, showing respect to all and trying to understand all, including those who show discrimination, and so win his battles - and even more important, other people's battles.

It sort of rubbed off on me.
 Bridget M. likes this

instructor of English at Endre Polyak
No, they can't always be substituted for each other. It depends on the context in which they are being used.

<teacher education>

I enjoyed my teacher education program. I didn't pass the practicum because my observing teacher was much more conservative and teacher-centered than I was. However I was still allowed to teach (in Texas), and figured out how to maximize learning in a high-school setting. What I learned most was 'All students will learn' and how difficult that was to implement. I took that maxim overseas. No one questioned it. Still, I had to learn it in the program, and kept pretty quiet when presented ideas from teachers who 'had opposite views' from mine. Instead, I tried 'translating' what I understood their ideas to be, to something closer to my own 'truth'.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

As I did myself - and in all the workshops, seminars and so on since.

A teacher training program is an important place to get the benefit of all the teaching experience that went into it in "compact" form, be it a 4-week EFL certificate or a 4 year Bachelor of Ed program followed by a Masters.

However, no program is enough in itself. It is the experience we build up after that puts the training program into perspective, sometimes showing that in some areas the program had lost the plot (too focused on theory or whatever), but on the whole by completing through experience the seeds of udnerstanding that started in the program.

My job as a Direcftor of Studies/Academic Director is to make sure that my organisation supplies/arranges/helps the teachers who work for us to go the extra steps of getting the extra training/awareness that a training program can't - workshops run by practicing teachers (often extremnely well qualified as well) and the like, where the important insights of Academia, Teacher Experience, Student Feedback all go together to create that more student-focused learning experience.

Getting teachers who have not yet realised it that the students need to be teaching themselves with our guidance, not the other way around.

And - sites like Linked-In help to democracise the process.

PS - I meant democratise ...

Rita Baker likens teaching English to giving students pieces of a puzzle. She says what we don't give learners is the picture on the box. Rita is a pattern thinker and developed her own method for teaching English based on giving learners the picture on the box (patterns that are always true). Once students see the whole picture they can fit any piece of English they come across into its place with or without a teacher.
Delivering infinite pieces that may all be accurate takes thousands of hours, is not effective and is how we were taught to teach English. This method leaves learners fumbling and insecure. The picture on the box is what students can learn in 30 hours. It just wouldn't hurt teachers to know it too. Right now some teachers waste a lot of energy trying to justify the thousand pieces method instead of taking a few hours to grasp something new.
 Rod Mitchell likes this

This discussion reminds me of a young Finnish girl who was writing about a bully at school. She used the word "tempt" as what the bully was doing. Probably found it in some not-so-good dictionary, which only has the biblical meaning. And yes, in the Finnish language, both have the same root. I think I said to her: Satan tempts, people bully.
Rod Mitchell likes this

A well-constructed course - and I am sure everyone in this group is with me here - is one where the teacher has realistic developed aims, objectives, goals for the students to attain - based on the students needs and immediate goals - with some thought to the long term goals of the student.

A teacher OR a student who barges into a course without a clear end in sight can do reasonably well in some cases; I have taught courses like that because the students themselves realised that they had long term goals and so "whatever" now was good enough. One of my students had been doing English 9 years before I met him; he was happy with what happened "now", because that was his learning style. Learning English was his hobby - and the nitty-gritty of grammar, synonyms - everything - interested him.

But - that type of course is a dream course; most students have definite goals. Also, as most students are "untrained" as learners - let alone teachers - having a well-constructed course keeps them on the track as well as ourselves.

Getting back to synonyms - would everyone agree that "scarlet" and "crimson" are real synonyms - that they are for all intents and purposes interchangeable? [Though - I don't know if the Crimson Pimpernel would really work].

Assistant Professor, Nipissing University. Technology Consultant / Entrepreneur
Top Contributor

Sure. But would you agree with the statement - "Two words (what we call synonyms) can NEVER be substituted for each other"? I believe this statement is false and thus, synonyms do exist and are identical.

Everything does depend on the context and every sentence and / or word(s) are only utter once - to paraphrase Heraclitus (and his wading in a river quote). But for their to be a language, there must be an agreed upon meaning of a word. There are such things as synonyms though there may be a range in which they match and it might not be exact. Without synonyms, a language would never change and would die a lonely death.

Subjectivity is fine but if carried too far, it destroys any and all discourse and academic discourse.

No, I wouldn't. Everything depends on the context synonyms are used as to whether they can be interchangeably used or not.

No, sorry Rod, scarlet and crimson are not interchangeable - they are very different - ask anyone who is choosing a lipstick shade, or an artist painting a red rose or a sunset..

They are both shades of red - but stand on their own (scarlet has more orange, crimson more blue,)

Editor, Your English Supplement (Yes) & Tutor, UNED
How about "forehead" and "brow"?

 (I hope I don't get forehead-beaten by anyone for this suggestion).

David - if we can actually find two words that can replace each other AND are in meaning completely identical, then true synonyms exist.

BUT - so far as far as I know, no one has actually found any such. There always seems to be a difference - and it is these differences that mean that words cannot really be swapped for each other without changing meaning.

Claudie - thanks for adding more evidence to the point - there is probably no such thing as a true synonym. This doesn't mean partial synonomity happens; we can swap words in a context and keep the same general meaning (e.g. You must leave your key at the desk, Sir; You have to leave your key at the desk, Sir : in the right context the overall message is the same, even though the use of "must" vs "have to" gives a subtle difference - a difference that in more general contexts means that "must" and "have to" can't be subsituted for each other.

"Forehead" and "brow" are also partial synonyms. "Brow" covers any physical feature that has that general shape of being at the leading edge of a top/overhanging part (e.g. the brow of a hill, eye brow), while "forehead" is the fore-part of the head - which (by coincidence) is much the same as the brow of the head. "Forehead" can't be used in reference to either a hill or the eyes.

David : <<But for their to be a language, there must be an agreed upon meaning of a word.>>
This goes without saying. When we learn a language, either as our first or later on in life - we learn a prepackaged code, where meaning is already established. Small changes happen over each generation, but we certainly do not reinvent the wheel with every birth.

<<There are such things as synonyms though there may be a range in which they match and it might not be exact.>>
Which means there is no such thing as a true synonym. What we commonly call "synomyms", and give the lay-meaning "words that have the same meaning and can be substituted for each other" in itself is not true; synonyms are words that have similar meanings (their meanings overlap) and can be substituted for each other only in given contexts; however, even then, the difference in meaning still colours the message.

<<Without synonyms, a language would never change and would die a lonely death.>>
The logic seems wonky.

Most language change is not because of synonymity. When words change meaning, it is as a rule through shift within the word itself; in general one part of the word has a reference change that gradually over time causes a change in other parts of the meaning of the word which then - over time - takes on a different (though in general related) meaning. either the complete word changes meaning, or the word "splits" into two or more new words.

A good example of the first is "starve", which originally meant "die" [of any cause], and then over a serious of "restrictions", such as "starve of cold", "starve of lack of meat", and so on ended up specifically meaning "die of hunger" [this was a change that took centuries].

A good example of the second (a word "splitting" into two words) is "flower" vs "flour"; the original word was the Norman French "flour" (flower, the finest~best part), the meaning of "refined flour" being a specific application of the idiomatic reference (in modern French "fleur de farine"). Norman French "flour" in English over [centuries of ] time split into two words "flour" and "flower" (this is why these two words are pronounced exactly the same way), which we now no longer see as being the same word.

However, the English words for "flower" - "blossom" - and "flour" - "meal" - have only been partially replaced, in the second case in the standard "French=superior/Anglo-Saxon=inferior" pattern, but the first is an interesting one, "blossom" is more poetic, whiloe "flower" is more "general"; "bossom" in a way is the superior word.

A good question is - why haven't "flour"/"flower" completely replaced "meal"/"blossom"? Because each pair (flour/meal, flower/blossom) have found their own equilibrium - where "flour" is concerned, "meal" refers to specific types of flour (unrefined, wholemeal, oatmeal, maizemeal, etc.), while "blossom" has that poetic feel (and specific reference in phrases such as "the blossom in her cheek".

David wrote: "But would you agree... "Two words...can NEVER be substituted for each other"? I believe this statement is false and thus, synonyms do exist and are identical.

Rod wrote: "BUT - so far as far as I know, no one has actually found any such."
I did a bit of research on this. If we're talking about absolute, true, logical or full synonymy then it seems we need equivalency in sense (meaning), register, connotation, denotation, and idiomatic use. My question then is do any of the American equivalents of UK terms (couch/sofa, truck/ lorry, etc.), or past participles (got/gotten, learned/learnt, hid/hidden) qualify?

Dialect differences don't qualify, because WITHIN each dialect the other form doesn't exist, and so WITHIN the dialect, they can't be synonyms.

Note that both "truck" and "lorry" exist within British English - and are not synonyms (even though many British people know that in US and Australian English "truck" is used instead of "lorry"). "Lorry" [in origin a northern British dialect word] refers to a particular type of transport vehicle - in origin a cart/wagon - which is in its own way is a particularly type of "truck" "transport vehicle of various kinds".

"Couch" and "sofa" in those dialects that have both (like mine - in my dialect we also have "lounge" for the same thing, so three words) are also not true synonyms; they have register differences.

"dinner", "lunch", "tea" etc. - where I come from (and I know it is true for other plkaces as well) - working/lower class people generally use "dinner" for the midday meal, and "tea" for the evening meal. In formal English, it is "lunch" for the midday meal, and "dinner" for the evening meal, except for special lunches, like "Christmas dinner", eaten at lunch time.

"dinner" vs "lunch", "tea" vs "dinner" again are nt synonyms, there is not only the social class differences, but also another difference - social situation.

"got" vs "gotten" also are not synonyms - note that in the US both exist ("I have got a car" vs "I have gotten a car" - these show that the words are not synonyms in US English). "I have got a car" in British English is ambiguous.

"Learned/learnt", "hid/hidden" and so on also do not count as synonyms; they are variant forms of the same word, in the first case of the past tense and past participle, and in the second of the past participle. "Killed" and "killt" are also different dialect forms. The differences are not really UK vs US English (or Australian English, etc.), because regional dialects in both countries have the -t or the -d version.

I suppose you won't allow "among" and "amongst" as synonyms becuase you'll say they are essentially the same word.

What about "somebody" and "someone"? OK, there is some US preference for the first and UK preference for the second but they are both used in both places (I believe interchangeably).

Trainer at Nations Training
The 4 choices are not synonyms! Be very careful using a dictionary.
For example, the adjective happy, the opposite is unhappy or sad. Or is it? You can say I am happy/unhappy with my progress. I am sad with my progress is not good English.
Learning from isolated sentences in exercise books is not the best way to improve proficiency. Students need to be exposed to as much real everyday English as possible from newspapers, YouTube, music, books, Learning by rote is useful up to a point but training the ear to hear properly is the only way to become really proficient.

No - not even "among"/"amongst", "amid"/"amidst", "while"/"whilst", etc. They differ in register; in origin the difference was in case (locative versus genitive - the -s forms showed generality/habitual) and then "colloquialism" - the -t was a colloquial addition, and then the -st forms became "more formal". Though, because both "amid" and "amidst" now are equally archaic, we could argue that they are true synonyms.

"Somebody"/"someone", "nobody/noone", "anybody"/"anyone" - these are probably true synonyms - though therer might be a formality difference. Which one is more correct in formal English, "somebody" or "someone"? Or - to put it another way, in formal writing, do you feel more confortable wusing "someone" or "somebody". I have a feeling - but that might be me, that the "-one" forms are more common in formal writing.

<<Be very careful using a dictionary.>> 100 % agreement - particularly bilingual dictionaries.

"Unhappy" is not a complete synonym of "sad", that is true - we say "I am sad about my progress" - the opposite of "I am glad about my progress". If anything, "sad" is the oppsite of "glad" (the "opposite rule" doesn't always work, though)

<<Learning from isolated sentences in exercise books is not the best way to improve proficiency.>> It is perhaps the worst way.

<<training the ear to hear properly is the only way to become really proficient.>> What do you mean by this, Phil - do you mean listening skills or speaking skills?

<"among"/"amongst", "amid"/"amidst", "while"/"whilst">

Without going as far as saying that the image in a speaker's mind of the instance of 'among' (and the rest) is different in the 'among' and 'amongst' users, it seems to me that the meaning is the same. If we don't (no blackmail intended), then we'd have to say that even the same word has a different meaning for every individual. I don't think this discussion would want to go back that far in 'meaning'. Does it?

No - of course not - the question is what is it that makes synonyms "identical" or "not" - if there is a register difference, then "while/whilst" etc. are not true synonyms, in that they are used in different contexts.

I intentionally did not mention amid(st) and while/whilst because there I do see a difference in register. However, I have observed myself using among and amongst interchangeably in my writing without any criterion for doing so.

<<"Somebody"/"someone", "nobody/noone", "anybody"/"anyone" - these are probably true synonyms - though therer might be a formality difference. >> -- Rod

Agreed. As individuals with limited exposure, we may perceive a pair of true / logical / absolute / full / fully interchangeable* synonyms but linguists should be the ones to decide based on sufficient examples and inevitably the more examples they locate, the more likely they'll find a distinction.

* Pick your adjective here because unless someone can distinguish between them, they're all the same to me. What I mean is that perhaps truth in synonymy is as much a relative term as it is a linguistic term. Yes, statistical differences if not regional or usage differences are bound to be found but if someone is uaware of them, the synonmyms ARE true for them.

Am I happy! The breadth and range I see here is amazing. Learning never ends. Thank you all for excellent interpretations with convincing examples. Great going!
Ferd R.Rod Mitchell and 1 other like this

"amid(st)" - a difficult word to use nowadays without being deliberately "archaistic" (poetic, etc.) - which puts "amid/amidst" into a category on its own - and are variants of the same word.

"while/whilst" - a clear register difference (general vs "officialese")

"among/amongst" - I myself [and no-one I know personally from where I come from) don't use "amongst" - and as we only see it in writing, it has that "formal" appeal that "whilst" has.

However - of course - this brings up other issues - the register that we usually operate in in our work, daily lives, etc. The register that our writing is normally in, and so on. Regional and social dialect variation.

<<linguists should be the ones to decide based on sufficient examples and inevitably the more examples they locate, the more likely they'll find a distinction.>>

That goes for anyone; we operate largely by subconscious awareness in language use. We relatively rarely consciously choose any word or phrase type. It doesn't need a linguist to do it (and some linguist probably already has). Anyone can wade through lots of real-life examples and compare contexts. If "Xone" is more common in formal use, and "Xbody" is more common in everyday use, then there is a pattern.

However, it doesn't need even that - if in writing a formal piece of writing we find that we prefer Xone, then that is also a sign that Xone and Xbody are not complete synonyms, even if we are not consciously aware of any difference. It is that vague "it seems better" that is the sign that there is a difference.

Which brings this up : <<if someone is uaware of them, the synonmyms ARE true for them.>> The problem is that "awareness" is a difficult measure - you could probably ask the average English speaking person what the difference between "must" and "have to" is, and probably can guarantee that a significant amount will say "There's no difference", or "I can't see any difference" - or whatever - even though if you then monitor their speaking, you will see that they do make a clear difference. When you go through various examples etc. with them, then they become consciouslly aware of the difference.

To quote someone on the web who I can't find his name : "The Oxford Dictionary of American Usage and Style: The two terms are interchangeable, so euphony governs the
choice in any given context. In practice, anyone appears in print about three times as often as anybody. I would strongly suggest that this gap between written and spoken usage evidences the fact that anyone is the formal usage. In my experience as an academic with a PhD in history, and as an editorial assistant at an academic journal, anyone is the preferred usage [...] to my ears anybody sounds rather awkward in polite speech. So, if "euphony governs the choice," I would suggest (from the perspective of an east coast academic for what it is worth) that anyone has a more pleasing sound."

In the same sequence, someone else put : "... from my personal experience, I like to use 'anybody' in things like writing a college-level essay. I guess it really doesn't matter, but I do see 'anybody' as being a little more formal."

Two people from the opposite ends of the academic spectrum.

"To quote someone on the web who I can't find his name " - clumsy phrasing ...

I once heard the phrase .. "Teach your students about the danger of using a thesaurus without the aid of a net...."

Loved it!!

Bridget points out that the complexity of synonyms available in the English language means that "one must know instinctively which one to use and which not". When we are focussing on the teaching of the language we need to then ask how we can actually develop that "instinctive" awareness. I believe the teaching of synonyms cannot be left for the "advanced or proficiency" levels. We must begin addressing this at varying levels of complexity as students proceed through their levels of proficiency. For example, in descriptive writing, students would recognise that "big" has the synonym "large" and as many of my students discovered on their own, the word "huge". As Nelson points out, we give "Information when it is needed". This is integral to the concept that what we teach is only second to what our students learn. And our students learn in various contexts and for various needs. The students I teach are highly motivated to move as quickly as possible through the intensive language phase so that they can I join the mainstream Australian students in preparing for their chosen careers. They thrive on any learning opportunities given to them, and I would be shortchanging them by not providing them these nuggets of information. It is never easy to meet the varying needs of students, but students are the beneficiaries when teaching is differentiated to meet these needs.

Judith and Diane,
I want to say that I agree with both of you. One throws out ideas without thinking through, and of course, one could run into times!
In practice I do as you do, more or less, and talk a lot about usage versus pure grammar and lexis. One keeps giving students steps up, without a great deal of detail......unless of course they are really troubled by some issue in the language.
I was thinking mainly about more detailed study at Advanced and Proficiency level, when we dig deeper; also for us teachers, when we have to write something. And yes, a thesaurus is not for the uninitiated, totally agree.

Ladies and gentlemen, I find less scope for such a detailed discussion on the question : "Can synonyms be substituted for each other"? The English dictionary certainly allows substitution of synonyms. But there is at least slight difference in the meaning of each word involved in the synonym. So, the writer or the speaker has to choose the right word according to his need of expression and the reader or listener has to understand the meaning accordingly.

If we choose better questions for discussion, all concerned may be benefited more.
Question : "Does the English language consider the Pronoun "I" as 'singular' and 'plural' word any time. If so, when ?

You may kindly send the email to me at "" OR " / .org

My websites are : / .org OR / .org

Mr. Jacob Nettikkadan,
Could you kindly develop the question you've posed ? Do you have any particular example of ambiguous use of the "I" in mind ?

<what we teach is only second to what our students learn>

Incredible. Amazing. Did you come up with this? Is it a quote?
Your admirer, N.
Rod Mitchell likes this

<the right word according to his need of expression>

I would use a dictionary of synonyms if I can't think of the word I need even though it's on the tip, or blade, of my tongue. Not the other way around.
I would think that some students would use a dictionary of synonyms to look up the meaning of a word, rather than use a standard dictionary.

I see nothing wrong with the discussion question that was posted. Surely if a question generates ideas and even if it springboards new discussion topics, it has value as a discussion topic.

I am not sure how many of us are out there, but I am one of those who has never used a thesaurus in my life. I've looked at them, know how they work (etc.), but I have never felt feel the need to use one. Deep down, I am probably in the majority; probably most of us native-speakers - regardless of our language - do not need to look up a thesaurus if looking for another or way "to say the same thing". We either ask someone else if they could suggest something - or let it stew in our brains until we find something (and in many cases there is no other way).

All of us can find "synoforms" - different ways of saying the same thing - unless we are of course looking for that special word/way/idiom that says exactly what we want to say - that special thing that is always on the tip of the tongue, or knocking around in the back of the head, but that just does not want to come out - but is better than the word or phrase we have already found.

There is also another main "why" for finding other ways of saying the same thing - so as not to repeat the same word or phrase in good writing. An important cultural lesson, of course. Not all cultures are so hung up on this as some are.

In other words - the why of using a thesaurus is very important, but can not necessarily really help the EFL/ESL learner, because that "special thing" trying to get out might actually be something from their own language's group of "synoforms". I've done it myself, and seen quite a few of my students do it - find a "synoform" that works for English, but doesn't work in the language I'm working in (and vice versa of course for students doing English).

For EFL/ESL students, a thesaurus must always be secondary to a (monolingual) dictionary - and if a thesaurus is used, the dictionary must always be there. Otherwise, suggesting to a non-English someone to use a thesaurus can be defeatest (as some have already hinted at in this discussion).

PS - the question posted is actually excellent. Perhaps Jaob is actually suggesting it has run its course?

"I" can have plural reference - though the only type of example I can think of is on the tip of my tongue and can;t get out. I'll have to let it stew for a while.

Well, I'm in your antipodes - I use a thesaurus ever day of my life. True, I am a special case in that I have to write an average of 80 footnotes a day in English for English texts and synonyms are very useful for me. What is also true, however, is that the phrase "(in this case)" often precedes the synonyms.
While I would agree that there are no true synonyms, as this thread has made abundantly clear, I would still argue that they are a vital proxy concept for those learning English as a foreign language, especially in the context of Romance languages; there is usually bridging synonym which helps to get the meaning across.
Rod Mitchell likes this

As a non-native speaker I have used thesauruses to finding meanings that are near to the word that came up in my head. Also for me two ways of saying the same thing might appear in my brains. However, I usually take only those words from a thesaurus that I know how they work (context, structure, when it is idiomatic). I think life is usually too short to consult a good dictionary in addition to thesaurus.
Rod Mitchell likes this

Though, of course, Jani - if you come across a word that you don't know in the thesaurus, probably you would look in a dictionary (or ask someone). You probably wouldn't use it blindly.

That is always the danger in using a thesaurus. Blind trust and believing that synonyms are completely interchangeable.
Jeffrey Diamond likes this

Yes, Rod, I think I would totally agree with that. Thesauruses (OK, thesauri, but that sound like what a T. rex would have for breakfast) are for native speakers to use and maybe filter the information gleaned to non-natives. I think they would be more trouble than they are worth to a learner.
Jeffrey Diamond likes this

The interesting thing for EFL teachers I know who recommend thesauruses to students is - students in general say "what's that" and then say things like "there's no such thing for my language" (that doesn't necessrily mean they don't exist, simply that they have never come across them for their own language).
Jeffrey Diamond likes this

Well, it's also because the English word, which means something like "treasure trove", is highly metaphorical. If you say "a dictionary of synonyms and antonyms" they usually know what you mean (though it helps, of course, that Peter Mark Roget was British (even if Swiss by ancestry).
Jeffrey Diamond likes this

Very true.

Good points. In relation to the etymology of Thesaurus, the first monolingual Spanish dictionary by Sebastián Covarrubias was "Tesoro de la lengua castellana" published in 1611. I find it rather poetic and fitting that a language be regarded as a treasure.
Not always: Synonyms are similar, not identical.

When using synonyms, you need to take into account the context as different ones will fit better.

Meaning and use re both important - consider general meaning, but also positive or negative connotations, degree (or intensity), frequency of use, the users, register, etc.

For example - slim, thin, skinny - have different connotations - slim is positive and skinny is negative.

Ignore, neglect and reject can show a different degree of inattention reject is the most complete and final.

But we also often use them in different contexts. I ignore my phone beeping, but I reject the idea that men should earn more than women in the same job, for example.

Thanks, both of you, for confirming my thoughts on synonyms.