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Changing Vocabulary

These two important questions dealt with, we can turn our attention to the first major element we must change when paraphrasing, i.e. the vocabulary. When surveyed, students often state that the grammar of a passage will be the most difficult element to alter. However, with a few useful grammar tools to be discussed later, students often find that manipulating grammar tends to pose less of a challenge then first anticipated while in the long run, vocabulary proves to be more formidable. With this in mind, it's a good idea for students to get a firm understanding of some helpful guidelines and tools for changing vocabulary.

One of the first questions students usually pose when dealing with vocabulary centers on just which words do they have to change and which ones should they keep the same. Take the following sentence as an example.

     Tom went to New York University last semester to use microscopes to study the cells of trees..

If our goal is to change the vocabulary while retaining the original meaning (or as close to it as possible), then we need to ensure that our choices of synonyms don't undermine this goal. As such, there are some words in the sentence above that cannot be changed without changing their meanings. At this point, I usually ask students to tell me which words they think should not be changed, and they usually are able to come to a consensus on most of the terms.

     Tom went to New York University last semester to use microscopes to study the cells of trees.

So, what is it about the underlined words that make them unlikely to change, and what do they have in common that would allow us to group them into categories that can be applied to other vocabulary students will encounter? Let's start with Tom and New York University. We can categorize these as proper names, and as such, they shouldn't be changed in most cases. A good clue that something is a proper name is the fact that they are almost always capitalized. On the other hand, if we look at microscopes and cells, they are not capitalized and are not proper names, yet we still don't change them. Why? They fall into a second category of words best described as scientific or technical terms and don't usually have good synonyms. Finally, let's address the term tree. Although the word tree is not a scientific term or proper name, a careful search of synonyms fails to arrive at a good substitute. The fact is that there are some quite common words for which there simply are no good synonyms, and as long as students do their due diligence and check for synonyms, they should be ok.

Guidelines for Changing Vocabulary:
  • Don't change proper names
  • Don't change scientific/technical terms
  • Don't change words that simply don’t have a good synonym

Let's continue our discussion with Choosing synonyms.


page last modified: February 9, 2016

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