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How synonymy rolls

If you look up the synonym of big, you are likely to find words like large, huge, immense, colossal, enormous, and ginormous, among others. Some of these will cause you to raise an eyebrow because they are bigger than big: something can be big, but not huge or enormous. With a little cogitation and comparison, you’ll probably settle on big and large as the best pair of synonyms. Both can be defined as “of considerable size, extent, or intensity.” But do they really have the same meaning?

That depends on the meaning of “meaning.” Big and large are not always interchangeable: we talk about a “big idea” but not a “large idea,” and you can talk about a “large amount” of something but are less likely to say a “big amount.” You can make a “big deal” out of something trivial, but probably not a “large deal.” And if you need a twenty-ounce coffee, you’ll likely ask for a “large coffee,” not a “big coffee.” Big tends to issues and large to amounts.

While there are some absolute synonyms (think groundhog and woodchuck), the vast majority are really near-synonyms, with the same meaning in some uses or senses but not fully overlapping in all senses.  

Some word pairs wear their difference on their morphological sleeves. Take electric and electrical, for example. They can sometimes be used alike, as in when modifying appliance or current. But more often than not the two words spilt the terrain, with electric cars, electric toothbrushes, electric companies, and electric guitars, but electrical grids, electrical engineers, electrical storms, electrical tape, and so on. The difference seems to be that devices that use electricity are electric while things that produce or control electricity are electrical, though there is more to it (as the phrase electric personality suggests).

What’s more there are phrases which seem to be synonymous but which may have small differences such as the compound subordinators as if and as though. We use these to make comparisons by proposing imaginary, hypothetical, or possible situations.

He acted as if he owned the place.

It looks as though you’ve not done this before.

They moved toward the door as if to leave.

Bryan Garner suggests that “Attempts to distinguish between these idioms have proved futile” and that writers should let euphony be their guide—in other words, play it by ear.  But he adds this teaser: “One plausible distinction is that as if often suggests the more hypothetical proposition when cast in the subjunctive <as if he were a god>. … By contrast, as though suggests a more plausible suggestion <it looks as though it might rain>.” In other words, imaginary situations may tend toward as if (“He stood silently, as if he were made of stone.”) while possible situations may tend toward as though (“He fidgeted as though he was high on something.”) To me, as if does sound more bookish and subjunctive. And the subjunctive as if it were is the most common usage in Google n-grams, a tool that analyzes the contents of Google books. 

Notice too that the word like is a partial synonym for as if and as though, introducing nouns and clauses after such verbs as seem, feel, sound, act, and so on. But the subjunctive is decidedly odd. You can say “He acted as if he were a god, but not “He acted like he were a god.” Ugh.

Another pair of curious compounds is each other and one another. These convey what is known as the reciprocal relation, as in “The speakers shook hands with each other.” Each other is more common than one another and for many speakers (such as me) the only difference is that one another feels more formal or bookish. Some old or old-minded grammar books promulgate a fussy rule about each other being used for two and one another for more than two. That so-called rule is a bit of nonsense that attempts to force a grammatical distinction into these logical synonyms. The legendary grammarian Henry Fowler put it this way in his 1926 A Dictionary of Modern English Usage: the “differentiation is neither of present utility nor based on historical usage.”

Synonymy is tricky and imperfect. So before you take words or phrases as synonymous, think about it and see if they are really interchangeable. Which you use can make a big—or maybe a large—difference.

Featured image by Jan Canty via Unsplash.

Recent Comments

  1. Guy

    I recall a small controversy – when I was too young to understand – re the use of this phase by a cigarette company: “Lucky tastes good, like a cigarette should.” Some claimed it should read: “Lucky tastes good, as a cigarette should.” While I eschew the cigarette and spurn its advertisement, for some reason I actually prefer the former phrasing. What do you think?

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