Please contact E. B. Davis at for information on guest blogs and interviews. Interviews for October: 10/5 Carolina Crimes: Rock, Roll and Ruin 10/12 Alicia Beckman, Blind Faith 10/19 J. Woollcott, A Nice Place To Die 10/26 Carol J. Perry, High Spirits

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Symbiotic Synonyms

AAarrrrrggghhhh!  The synonyms are running rampant in the English language!  Someone save us!

Okay, that was a tad over-dramatic, but it's still true.  There are synonyms for most words in our language.  In fact, even the word itself has a couple of 'em.

Of all the tools that a writer uses, I think synonyms are some of the most useful of the bunch.  I never write a blog post without having a thesaurus open in another window.  Without synonyms, our stories and articles would seem so boring.  At least, I know that I get tired of seeing the same word used four or five times in a single paragraph (articles excepted).

Take a murder mystery, for instance.  If a writer were to have the villain "stab" all of his/her victims with a knife in exactly the same way, you'd grow bored of it, especially if they used the same words to describe it.  The reader might decide not to finish reading the book, regardless of how much time and effort was put into it.  However, the author could use words like "stick", "thrust", "puncture", "pierce", "run through" and numerous other synonyms to convey the same concept, but in more interesting ways.  With a little flourish and back story, the readers might not even notice that the villain can't seem to branch out in his/her choice of murder instrument.

However, when using synonyms in your writing, you have to be careful to make sure you're using the right one.  For instance, in my example above, I found other words that are considered synonymous with "stab" that just wouldn't work in the same context.  There was "incision", which could be used I guess, but doesn't give the same sense of danger or violence.  "Ache" was also in there, but that's more what the person would feel after being stabbed.  It's probably not even strong enough for the excruciating pain that I imagine would accompany a stab wound.  Having never been stabbed before (thankfully), I don't have first-hand  knowledge of that physical feeling, so maybe it could be a simple ache.  And since most people would probably assume a stabbing hurts more than what the word "ache" describes, I'd steer clear of it, just to be safe.

You do need to be careful with synonyms, though.  Like any writing tool, they should be used with care.  Using them sparingly and deliberately will help your work move along smoothly, and can make it much stronger and more enjoyable to the reader.  If you're unsure whether or not a synonym fits well, take out your trusty dictionary and read the direct definition there.  Yes, it takes a bit more time and effort, but as was shown quite brilliantly in this episode of Friends, using too many synonyms can make your writing seem confusing and disjointed.

Synonyms can be your friends . . . if you use them correctly.


E. B. Davis said...

I use all the time, not only because I'm a horrible speller, but I use the Thesaurus as well. After I've gone through all the words there, I change the word completely thus wasting my time. I exasperate myself!

However--I've found that although using the same word can be boring, at other times it sparks the readers memory to a character or clue that they read about previously. Using a unique identifier specific to only one person, place or thing can be useful if not overdone.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Fun and useful post, Alyx! As I get older, I find I turn to the thesaurus more to jog my memory for alternatives.

Good points, EB! I often go through all the words that a couple of thesauruses (I suppose thesauri is pedantic) offer me before my brain dredges up a totally different word that I realize is just perfect.

Also, there is a place for repetition, but you have to be very careful and controlled with it to keep it from being a problem.

Linda Rodriguez said...

Incidentally, our own KB Inglee is mentioned with approval on the big Jungle Red Writers blog today!

Gloria Alden said...

I love my Thesaurus and my dictionary that I keep on the shelf beside my computer. I use it often if I can't think of a synonym to use. I find it especially useful when writing poetry, too.

I agree about too much repetition. I recently read a book in which the author wanted the reader to identify her characters so much, that she used the same character quirks over and over. It actually got rather annoying.

Alyx Morgan said...

That's a very good counterpoint, EB. I haven't delved yet into using certain words to help identify one person or another.

Thanks for adding another tool to my toolbox. :o)

Alyx Morgan said...

I, too, find the thesaurus helpful to jog my memory for alternatives, Linda. I don't know if it's because of aging, or because I already have so many words swimming around in my head, that I need some help with focusing on which one I want.

Alyx Morgan said...

That's another good point, Gloria. I can use words to help identify a character, but don't overdo it.

Got it. Committed to memory. ;o)

Dana Fredsti said...

I find as long as writers don't try and get too fancy with their synonyms (or metaphors and similes) that mixing it up is a good thing. But when it's done badly... ooooh, momma!

Warren Bull said...

Great example of over-use on the "Friends" video.
Much gratitude, muchas gracias, prego, danka for the post.

Alyx Morgan said...

You're right, Dana. You have to be careful to use the proper synonym for your audience. I hate reading a book where I have to check a dictionary every few words. It makes me feel like the author is trying to impress people with their knowledge. *YAWN*

Thanks for stopping by today!

Alyx Morgan said...

LOL, Warren. De nada, De rein, bitte & all that other stuff.

& I agree. That Friends bit was an EXCELLENT example of over-usage.