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I realized the problems of usage and interpretation when I read Ogden and Richard’s explanations of the Meaning of Meaning. If I ask you what is the meaning of meaning, you are likely to say different things according to your perspectives. This is because what a word or an expression means to you may not be same as what it means to me. It is also another challenge if we realize that the word dead also means late. Why do we say, Her late husband ,and we cannot say late Jesus? This is worrisome and needs to be investigated.
Synonyms are words that are almost the same in meaning and not words that are completely the same in meaning. I can interpret the definition as synonyms are words that are, at least, the same in meaning. Does that mean that two words cannot be 100% the same in meaning? The answer is YES. According to the popular linguist, John Lyon and other linguists as well, two words cannot have exact same meaning in all environments. If you are told that two words are the same in meaning something must be different in the usage of the two words. This suggests that there is no TOTAL SYNONYM in the English Language.
How can we identify the differences in order to identify the appropriateness in their usages?
I have identified five different ways of identifying the differences in words that are said to be synonyms.
The first one is the degree of FORMALITY. Some English words are formal while others can be informal or spoken. A word is formal when it is used in an environment that is guided by strict rules, but informal when being used in a friendly manner. Two words can be synonymous because they share the same meaning but they cannot be used in every situation the same way.
Let us examine these pairs:
Children, assistance and hello are formal expressions. They are used in an organized environment that is guided by strict rules as said before . I can refer to my children as kids whenever I am in a casual conversation with a friend, but that is not possible when I am before the school head or at the board meeting. The same is applicable to Help and Assist as well as hello and hi.
I can tell my friend,
Please help me.
To my boss,
Please assist me. I say Hello in a formal situation and Hi in an informal situation.
The second way is the USAGE . Two words can be synonymous but cannot be used the same way in a sentence. There can be a grammatical difference between the two words. Let me start with the words LATE & DEAD. Let’s clarify the heading. Why is the word LATE not found before some names? It is not only before the Jesus. Abraham, Michael Jackson, Muhammad and Shakespeare have no LATE before their names. The reason for this is that the word “late” is used before the name of a person who is not famous and as a result many people are not aware of his or her death. If a famous person dies, the word LATE is used for few periods and deleted after the periods. The few periods are just meant to register his or her death. How it takes before it is removed depends on the users. Are the words LATE and DEAD the same in usage? Well, *late* means dead when it is an attributive adjective (only before a noun)
Am I too technical?
Okay, let me demonstrate this.
He is a dead man.
The man is dead.
Dead will have the same meaning in the two expressions; only that DEAD is attributive in the first sentence and predicative in the second sentence.
LATE, however, cannot be used to mean the same in the two sentences.
LATE in the first sentence means dead, but it means something else in the second sentence. It means that the man is not early. Can you spot the difference now?
Also, the words serious, ghastly and fatal.
It was a serious accident.
It was ghastly accident.
It was a fatal accident.
In these usages, the three words cannot be used the same way . There is no doubt that they are all adjectives, but they cannot be used the same way.
It will be wrong to say,
A very ghastly accident.✖️
A very fatal accident.✖️
This is because the words are extreme qualities and degrees, and do not need the adverb of degree VERY again. How do I mean?
Ghastly and Fatal already means VERY SERIOUS.
Is fatal the same as ghastly? That will be the discussion in the next journey.
In sum, it is important for every user of the English language to avoid the use of words as they feel like because they may not exactly suggest the same thing. I will explore other ways of identifying the differences in synonymous words in the next edition.
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Das.P.C(2012) Applied English Grammar and Composition. New Delhi: New Central Book Agency
Douglas .A and Strumpf Michael (2010) The Complete Grammar. India: Goodwill Publishing House.
Jindal.D.V and Syal P.(2010) An Introduction to Linguistics .New Delhi: PHI Learning
Jones.N etal(1985) The Right Word at the Right Time. London: Readers’ Digest Association
Yule G.(2014) The Study of Language USA: Cambridge University Press.