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What Is a Synonym?

By Mark Wollacott
Updated May 23, 2024
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A synonym is a word that has the same meaning or a close meaning to another word. For example, beautiful is a synonym of attractive, pretty, and gorgeous. The word synonym itself is rarely used in everyday English. A word that means the opposite of another is called an antonym. Such words are often used by writers so that the same words are not repeated again and again.

The word “synonym” is derived of a Latin root, and translates literally to “same name.” The word transitioned from Latin, through the German language, landing in the Middle English vocabulary, and remaining into modern-day English. Synonyms must be two words included in the same language; English words, which share meanings with Spanish words, are not synonymous.

Many writers use synonyms as a writing tool. Using this tool is seen as preferable to overusing the same word repetitively. Reading a repeated word, however, is often used for dramatic effect in writing; if the writer is not reaching for dramatic effect, the reader may be turned off the manuscript. Switching words moves sentences and helps readers maintain interest.

As a part of speech, the synonym is a versatile tool. It is used to convey meaning as well as change the reading level of a piece of work. A newspaper written on a third-grade reading level will use simple words while a piece of work written on a collegiate reading level will use more complex synonyms of the same simpler, third-grade words. A publication will target certain reading audiences by using either simple or more complex synonyms within its published works.

Readers use this method of word placement to help glean meaning from context clues. As a reader moves along a piece of work, he or she will encounter an unfamiliar word and continue reading, encountering context clues within the sentence or paragraph. Often, the context clues are synonyms to the unfamiliar word and will provide meaning for the reader.

Teachers use the context clue method to help teach students how to read and identify a synonym. Elementary school students will learn basic vocabulary, then expand upon that vocabulary with synonyms; the teacher will parallel the new word to a word previously learned to teach the definition of the new word as well as the concept of the synonym. Students also learn to find meaning within a text using synonyms as well as context clues; teachers help students understand the synonym concept in early elementary school to give students a better understanding of finding meaning within context.

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Discussion Comments

By JackWhack — On Jul 18, 2012

In my first college literature class, we had to make lists of synonyms using only our brains. We weren't allowed to look online or refer to any books.

For some words, thinking of their synonyms is easy. For others, it is nearly impossible.

I think that this exercise did help us develop our mental database of synonyms, though. I know that I used several of them throughout the semester in my creative writing and other essays, and I believe that this was the teacher's intention. She had told us to keep the list and refer to it as often as necessary.

By shell4life — On Jul 17, 2012

@cloudel – It must be nice to have all those synonyms in your head! I have to rely on a thesaurus while I'm writing, but I use it a little differently than most folks.

For some reason, I think better in opposites. So, if I'm looking for a creative synonym, I look up the antonym for the word instead, and that inspires me to think of my own synonym. Strangely, it works better for me than simply looking up the synonym!

Everybody's brain works differently, and my wires must be crossed. I stick with what works, though.

By cloudel — On Jul 16, 2012

I've always been pretty good at writing and editing, so I jumped at the chance to help my friend prepare his novel. He just needed some suggestions in certain spots, because he really hated to use the same descriptive word more than once in a paragraph.

My brain was like an encyclopedia of synonyms. I don't know how, but I could always come up with a synonym for him so easily. He said that with my help, he didn't have to go out and spend money on a thesaurus!

I do understand his aversion to using words repetitively. I think his novel sounds so much better with synonyms scattered throughout the pages.

By healthy4life — On Jul 16, 2012

I'm always getting synonyms confused with similes. This article reminded me that synonyms are just substitutes for other words, while similes are comparisons.

I remember learning in school that when you use a simile, you use the words “like” or “as,” but when you use a metaphor, you say that something “is” something else. That always helped me distinguish between these two things, but nothing really helped me remember the difference between a simile and a synonym.

Thanks for reminding me what a synonym is! Maybe now, I won't embarrass myself when I tutor my neighbor's child in English!

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