A Bit Of An Explanation

I am not a professional. Not anywhere near it. But I like to think that some little observations I have about language and the social construction of it are worthwhile.

Some of these notes were originally written for acquaintances with no linguistic experience whatsoever, so please be patient through the explanations of basic concepts, and the simplistic tone.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Settling For Similarity

"I knew it. Giant bull heads weren't enough, now we have sea monsters attacking our boat-"
"Attacking our ship," said Julie.

That's an excerpt from the book "Voyage Of The Jaffa Wind", part of the children's series The Secrets Of Droon. (Which I happen to love.) There's a running gag in the book - the heroes are taking a journey in a sea vessel called the Jaffa Wind, but the group keeps arguing over whether it's a boat or a ship.

It seems like such an odd thing to disagree over, right? They basically mean the same thing, don't they?

But of course, they don't. No two words in a single language ever mean exactly the same thing. As I touched upon in my post on verbs a while ago, words that may evoke the same general action still put a different mental picture in the mind of the reader/listener. The words "run" and "dash" evoke subtly individual parts of the tableau that constructs the meaning behind the words.

In each of the dictionaries in my home, the only big difference in the entries for "boat" and "ship" are the sizes assigned to each vessel.  Sometimes "small" and "of a considerable size" is the only thing separating two similar nouns. But that is a difference, and it does matter when describing something. Writing "our large boat set sail..." will make your readers think something different than "our large ship set sail...", or even "our small ship set sail..."

And that's why "synonyms" never made sense to me in first grade, and still don't work now. I think a couple of times I actually raised my hand to say "But, 'yellow' and 'gold' are different..." when we would have those lessons. Of course, I understood what they wanted me to say, so I never did badly on an assignment about synonyms, but in the back of my mind I always kept thinking "This is WRONG. These words do not mean the same thing!"

If you regularly visit the website Freerice, like I do, then you've probably done their "English synonyms" category. And some of the so called "equivalents" in there really strike me - for example, one I saw today was "Boat means:" and the correct answer was "ship". Hmm.

So when dealing with synonyms, I really do not think teachers should be telling their students that the words "are the same", "are equal", or worst of all, "mean the same thing". Because no two English words are equal in meaning. Whether they're in different places along the verb continuum of strength, speed, or scope, or the continuum of size for nouns, no words are completely equal. 

There are words that are similar to each other. And that's how they should be approached and recognized - words that have similar general meanings, not the same meaning.

And to be honest, this attitude by a lot of writing teachers of "use the thesaurus to spice up your writing!" just leads to a lot of nonsensical word uses. Because if someone is throwing a football over their shoulder to someone far away, they are throwing it. They're not tossing it, because it would be incredibly awkward and wouldn't reach the person. They are not heaving it, because that evokes a comic image of someone straining and grunting to throw this light little object.

This misuse of similar-but-not-equal words is also the downfall of many a writer. I've seen even great authors make this mistake once or twice, but for genuinely not-at-all-talented writers, it's abused at least once a page. This is one of the many reasons people (including me) cite as to why we don't enjoy Stephenie Meyer's writing. In an incredibly epic blog, Twilight Snarker, the author actually has a count for how many times Meyer misuses a so-called synonym. They point out that the use of the word "saunter"in the preface completely ruins any drama Meyer was going for when she tried to evoke something like "slowly stalk".

So this is how I feel about synonyms. Writing and education would be much more realistic, practical, and better-sounding, if people just recognized that words are never equal, only vague similar.

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