Ignite the Thesaurus! Synonymy in the classroom.

synonymy-24411I don’t wish to start off the blog-post by sounding too boastful. But, and I’m sure you’ll be jealous to learn this, I have a full set of thesauruses in my classroom. Yep, that’s right. While most other English classrooms along the corridor struggle along with only a handful of mismatched, different editions, I have maintained my matching set of pocket wonders, in near perfect condition.

Recently though, I’ve had a little falling out with my loquacious friends, and things came to a head the other day whilst I was marking my year nine books. They had completed some creative writing, drawing inspiration from our World War One study of poetry. Whilst marking a soldier’s diary, I happened upon this sentence:

My friends are defunct

Then a little later, this beauty:

Every day is full of loathe.

Two or three of students had also written something to the effect of:

All around me I see fatality.

The unnerving thing about these sentences was that I hadn’t even asked them to use thesauruses. Yet their influence remains. Students are free to pick up the combined dictionary and thesauruses whenever they feel necessary. I tend to presume that they’re using them for spellings, but I’ve clearly been mistaken. Through my own failings, some of my students seem to be under the impression that synonymy works by dropping any broadly similar word into the place of another, regardless of context. Whilst I’m sure I could have done more to prevent this, I think it raises some interesting questions about synonymy in the classroom, and the approach to building vocabulary that seems to have influenced these students.

What is synonymy?

A typical definition of synonymy involves two terms having the same meaning. However, English speakers know pretty intuitively that most so-called synonyms have slight differences depending on context. Take the apparent synonyms ‘big’ and ‘large’. If we can describe a house as big, we can also describe it as large, with little difference to the overall meaning. However, these words may not be interchangeable in all contexts. I have a big sister, but I wouldn’t dream of describing her as large for fear of the repercussions.

Almost all apparent synonyms have subtle differences depending on the context of their usage. The idea of ‘absolute synonymy’ remains illusive.

So, can we still call ‘big’ and ‘large’ synonyms? One technical term to describe their relationship might be ‘partial synonymy’, as clearly in some environments these words are interchangeable. Another possible term for these words is ‘descriptive synonymy’, as in the given context about houses, the two words describe or entail each other. A big house must, necessarily, be a large house. In this case the two words are descriptive synonyms.

Synonymy and Corpus Linguistics

The English Language contains includes a huge amount of borrowed words, particularly from French and Latin. This means that for many synonyms, we have a French and a Latin alternative for Old English / Germanic term. For instance, the three potential synonyms begin, commence and initiate.

Although these words appear familiar, it’s quite easy to imagine contexts where one might be more appropriate than another. One way of exploring the relationship between these words is through the Corpus Linguistics, which can be defined as the study of language as expressed in samples (corpora) of “real world” text.” If you have access to the corpus database, which now boasts 2.5 billion words, you can search for specific words, apply a range of filters, and spot patterns of their usage in real life situations.


Take the example of the possible synonyms begin, commence, and initiate. Begin stems from the Old English beginnan, and is the oldest and most common of the trio. When looking at ‘begin’ in the corpus database, you can filter for the most common words which appear after it in real texts. The top five are listed below.

Here, ‘node’ refers to the word ‘begin’ and its derivations, such as ‘begins’ and ‘beginning.’

NODE       to         understand
NODE       with     see
NODE       by         feel
NODE       at          process
NODE       their     look

In these most common instances, the word ‘begin’ seems to describe how our beliefs are formed, and how we talk about our experiences. Not only is the word begin a core part of our vocabulary, it’s central to how we talk about our experiences and perceptions.

The word commence, borrowed from the French during the 13th century, is slightly different. Unlike begin, the it seems to be less about us organising our experiences and more about conducting official proceedings, to do with business and negotiations. Common collocates include ‘dealings,’ ‘treatment,’ ‘services’ and ‘proceedings’.

‘Initiate’, borrowed from Latin in the 16th Century appears to be slightly more complex and abstract than commence, according to the most common collocates, listed below:

NODE       hostilities
NODE       termination
NODE       prosecution
NODE       legislation
NODE       conversation
NODE       investigation
NODE       discussion
NODE       divorce
NODE       debates
NODE       judicial
NODE       proceeding                               NODE       offensive
NODE       sex
NODE       dialogue
NODE       sexual

Virtually all of the most common words which appear after initiate seem to be about some sort of dispute, or negotiation between two or more parties. And then there’s sex, of course. We often use euphemism to refer to taboo subjects like sex but why do we talk about ‘initiating’ sex? Whilst ‘begin’ may have a homelier, more unpretentious air, it may be the case that when discussing taboo subjects, society demands an air of pretense. The arguable taboo surrounding politics, legal proceedings and war, may also explain why the more complex, abstract synonym ‘initiate’ is a more appropriate word than begin.

Synonymy in the classroom

Synonymy is a complex idea and by reducing it to a discovery-learning-lottery inherent in random use of the thesaurus, the complexities of word meanings/relationships are lost. And when we lose this complexity, I feel we lose the beauty and intrigue of language.

As the corpus analysis shows, words are not random, and partial synonyms cannot be randomly allocated to any given context. Battles don’t just start, they commence, yet if I were a politician, I might refer to this as ‘initiating hostilities.’ All synonyms have differences, sometimes subtle, sometimes profound. For our students to really become word rich, we have to celebrate these differences. I think there’s a few practical ways we can go about this.

1. Remove hierarchies:

Words aren’t better than others. Words can be more emotive, more academic, more appropriate in certain contexts. Part of my students’ beliefs when writing seemed to be that a longer/more complex word would be necessarily better. I suspect this is a hangover from their years of leveling, but I need to address it. Much better for them to pick the best word for what they’re trying to express.

2. Plan the synonyms to use in class in advance

I think this works for both analytical writing and creative writing. If we want students to avoid using shows, we need to explore and discuss appropriate synonyms. Similarly, if we’re getting students to write creatively, we should consider presenting them with what they might find in a thesaurus, but devote significant time to discussing and exploring the differences between these words. This way, we can pick the best words for the contexts we want our students to write in, and be a little bit more deliberate about building their word power.

3. Use opportunities for meta cognition.

It’s important to get kids to think about words and the relationship between them If a student asks us for a ‘better word for said’ for example, maybe our answer should be ‘why?’ Or at least asking them to think about whether the character talking is ‘saying’ these words. Alongside exposing students to synonyms and the subtle differences between them, we might also force them to be critical of their own word choices, choosing the most appropriate word for a specific purpose.

Perhaps I shouldn’t burn my thesauruses. I’ve tried so hard to keep them after all. But I do need to be more careful. Thesauruses are built on prioritising sameness of meaning, whereas I want my students to focus on the differences, however small and subtle.



4 thoughts on “Ignite the Thesaurus! Synonymy in the classroom.

  1. A pleasure to read this, not least because I recognise so much of the issue.
    I once had a struggling student introduce a character only her narrative called “nomenclature”. Evidently she’d taken it upon herself to look up name in the thesaurus!

  2. Pingback: Edssential » Ignite the Thesaurus! Synonymy in the classroom.

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