Tag Archives: synonyms

“Synonym Syndrome”

As I’ve written about before, choosing exactly the right descriptive word when you’re writing is important–words carry not only a direct meaning, but an implied meaning as well, called a connotation.

I noticed this afresh during an impromptu “writers’ club” meeting with my guy friend; we had switched computers to read each other’s stories so far, and I saw that while he had scattered descriptive words all throughout his story, some of them didn’t quite seem to fit the tone of what he meant. Instead of saying “said” a million times, for instance, he had put in apparent synonyms for the word “said”, like “noted,” “stated,” etc. Yet these words didn’t have the right “shade” of meaning in the context of what the characters were saying, etc.

I’ve run into this same problem many times in my own writing–I call it “synonym syndrome,” when you’re trying desperately not to use the same word over and over. The problem comes in when the synonyms you’re trying to use don’t quite match your meaning; they can cause a little confusion in the reader as they try to picture the scene you’ve written.

Examples of Synonym Syndrome

“I can’t believe this is happening to me!” Sandy noted.
“Psst, look over there,” Nathan stated.
“This is my original opinion,” he cited.
“WILL YOU JUST LISTEN TO ME?!” she murmured.

All of these speaking words in these examples do have the basic meaning of speech, but the more subtle shades of meaning in each one render our mental picture of the described action a little differently. It’s hard for readers to imagine a character murmuring in all caps, for instance. When you overuse synonyms like this, which is very tempting to do, it’s almost like your writing becomes a thesaurus in and of itself–it reads in a more stilted fashion rather than flowing naturally.

Some Ideas to Fix Synonym Syndrome

  • First of all, don’t be afraid to use the same word a few times in as many pages. If the right word to describe a character’s speech is “said,” then use “said,” and don’t worry about it. It will read much smoother.
  • As you look at a synonym list, mentally picture the action you’re trying to describe, as if you’re watching a movie form of it. How are the “actors” in your mental scene acting or speaking? Which of the words you’re looking at describes that action the best?
  • If you can’t find exactly the right synonym for an action verb, remember that you can add an adverb, which will spike the verb with a little more descriptive meaning. Just be sure to use adverbs sparingly–they’re like garlic, good in small quantities but easily overwhelming if you put in too much.

    Examples (adverbs in italics):

    • “She sighed tiredly
    • Swiftly, he answered”
    • “The box slid slowly down the slope”
    • “Sinking down into a chair dramatically, she closed her eyes”

Additional Food for Thought: Taking Apart Synonyms’ Meanings

Really take time to dissect the words you want to use. Do they really mean what you want them to mean? This can help you determine whether your word choice is natural or whether it’s got a little synonym syndrome. As examples, let’s look at the words “said” and “moved.”

Synonyms for “Said”

  • remarked – implies that the sentence spoken is either a retort/comeback or a pointed/smart reply.
  • noted – implies a quiet addition to someone else’s comment
  • cited – implies a quotation by the speaker rather than an original thought
  • answered/replied – requires another character to have spoken before to make sense
  • stated – implies a strident or resolute tone of speech, unmovable by others’ opinions
  • muttered – implies a resentful tone
  • murmured – implies a very quiet tone, either of a shy comment or a loving one
  • whispered – implies a quiet tone, but more of passing information secretly between characters

Synonyms for “Moved”

  • stomped – implies anger/frustration
  • tiptoed – implies timidity or caution, possibly stealth
  • glided – implies graceful movement–can be snakelike (negative/evil) or swanlike (positive/good)
  • skipped – implies carefree, blissful state of mood
  • sneaked – implies stealth, usually for an underhanded purpose
  • strode – implies confidence, possibly arrogance or anger
  • moseyed – implies an unhurried, almost lazy pace
  • strolled – a casual walk
  • sauntered – a casual walk with a slight shade of conceitedness/overconfidence; often used when a female character is approaching a male character she’s interested in

Connotation: The Search for the Right Synonym

When I taught 7th grade Language Arts, one of the biggest complaints I heard from my students was “Why are there so many WORDS for everything, when a lot of ’em mean the same thing?” My response: “These words don’t always mean EXACTLY the same thing.” And then I went and taught a lesson on connotation–the shades of meaning hidden in words.

Why Connotation is Important

Connotation gives writing a subtle descriptive power, without which most stories would fall flat. The choice of exactly the right word is like an artist choosing just the right shade of red or blue for a painting–the wrong shade can make the whole painting look “off” to the viewer’s eye, just as the wrong word choice can give listeners or readers a wrong impression. It might be a little detail, but it’s important!

In my writing, I often hunt for synonyms of words whose concepts I use quite frequently–for instance, the word “said” is a big thorn for me, because I don’t want my writing to sound “like an echo chamber” (which one of my graduate school professors told me my writing resembled–GRR). These days, it seems I’m always struggling to find a word I can use in place of “said,” but often there isn’t any really effective substitute. Nothing just SAYS “said” like “said.” (If that makes any sense…LOL!)

This, plus reading lots of other people’s writings about having the same difficulty, led me to think about writing with synonyms in general. When we choose synonyms for words we are using more often, we can often get tricked into thinking the synonyms mean EXACTLY the same thing as the word we are replacing–like my 7th graders thought. That, however, is definitely not the case.

An Example: The Word “Said”

Take the various synonyms and sorta-synonyms for “said”, as a convenient example (many thanks to Thesaurus):

add, affirm, allege, announce, answer, assert, break silence, claim, come out with, communicate, conjecture, convey, cry, declare, deliver, disclose, divulge, estimate, express, flap, gab, give voice, guess, imagine, imply, jaw, judge, lip, maintain, make known, mention, mutter, opine, orate, perform, pronounce, put forth, put into words, rap, read, recite, rehearse, relate, remark, render, repeat, reply, report, respond, reveal, rumor, speak, spiel, state, suggest, tell, utter, verbalize, voice, yak

WOW! Did you know there were THAT many apparent synonyms for just SAYING something? I sure didn’t, until I researched it. And yet, all these words don’t mean EXACTLY the same thing as “said.” They all do mean that something was spoken aloud, but beyond that, there are many shades and tones of meaning:

Implies that the person has already said something before this, or is adding to another person’s statement

Implies a positive rather than negative response to a question

Allege/Assert/Claim/Maintain/Put Forth:
Implies a forceful or accusatory tone of voice

Announce/Declare/Judge/Make Known/Pronounce/Utter:
Implies a loud tone of voice, but not necessarily an angry shout

Implies a statement that simply answers another person’s question

Break Silence/Voice/Come Out With:
Implies a statement made after a long silence by other people

Communicate/Convey/Express/Put Into Words/Speak:
Implies a statement made over distance (like phone or email) or spoken in a neutral tone of voice

Implies an opinion spoken without evidence

Implies frustration or outrage, or even desperation

Implies a formal speech or structured words

Implies a quiet or possibly conspiratorial tone of voice

Implies a statement full of educated guesses or opinions

Implies light or small talk, not of much importance

Give Voice/Verbalize/Voice:
Implies a spoken opinion which was either held back for a long time, or has been silently held by many other people in attendance

Implies an opinion expressing “what-if” situations, fantasy

Means the statement has a hidden meaning or obscure connotation

Implies comments that are rude or false (i.e., “paying lip service” or “getting lippy with someone”)

Implies a casual tone of voice, maybe an offhand comment

Implies resentment or a sotto voce (under the breath) comment

Implies a firm tone of voice, not casual in any regard

Implies comments or questions that are being practiced

Implies speech that is given to an authority figure

Implies speech that is part of a sales pitch or otherwise overly practiced story

Implies speech that is intended to be persuasive

And This is Just One Example of Connotation!

Looking at this list might be a little daunting, but it truly shows how diverse English can be, in terms of giving dialogue a little color and life. You can change the tone and mood of a sentence just by changing “remarked” to “suggested,” or by changing “mention” to “convey.” It gives your work subtle dimension, like using a pencil to shade a character’s face so that it appears 3-D on a page.

Including Connotation in Your Own Work

When you’re hunting for the right word, it really does help to keep a thesaurus nearby (either in paper form or by searching Thesaurus.com). It might seem like a writer’s cliche, but it does help with crafting better prose and poetry, just like gazing at a palette full of colors helps an artist choose just the right one for a part of their painting. Look up the word you think you want to use, and you might find one in the list that fits your needs even better!