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Choosing Synonyms

Once students determine that a synonym is needed, the question arises as to just how to find and choose a good one. Fortunately, they have a few helpful tools at their disposal. Among these are synonym search features in word processors like Microsoft Word and some good websites like Thesaurus.com. This said, it is not just a simple matter of choosing the first synonym they find on the list since the context usually determines the best word choice.

For example, in the sentence below the term "stress" has more than one possible synonym, yet not all will fit the context.

     Engineers determined that the bridge had been stressed by environmental forces prior to its collapse.

A thesaurus search of the word "stress" yields a variety of terms including anxiety, worry, fret, strain, importance, accentuate ... As is often the case, this list of synonyms includes both nouns and verbs. Students must use the context to determine the correct part of speech of the term, and narrow down their choices. In the example, "stress" is used as a verb so anxiety and importance can be eliminated.

Sometimes the list will contain a term the student recognizes and the correct synonym will be apparent to them. However, more often they are faced with a list of unfamiliar terms leaving them with a more difficult choice to make. At this point, students can turn to another tool to help them make the correct choice. By using an online dictionary in conjunction with the thesaurus, they can check the meaning of the unfamiliar terms and determine whether or not they fit the context. In the example above, Dictionary.com defines the word "strain" as "to draw tight or taut, especially to the utmost tension; stretch to the full; to cause mechanical deformation in (a body or structure)", making it a good synonym for the context. [You can also use a Learner's Dictionary for simpler definitions.]

This process can be time-consuming at first, but eventually becomes needed less often as students internalize more and more vocabulary.

Practice Exercise:
In choosing good synonyms the context is quite important, so a fairly good way to practice using the guidelines and choosing synonyms is by using Simple English Wikipedia . I find Simple English Wiki a good source because it uses a vocabulary and grammar level that's suitable for most intermediate to high-intermediate learners. On this site, simply search for a topic of interest to your students and copy a paragraph or several sentences from the article you find and paste them into a Word document. Then ask students to circle the words that should not be changed [based on the guidelines] and then find good synonyms for the ones that can be changed. I usually prefer to have them work in pairs so they have the opportunity to learn from each other. Of course in grading such a practice, a certain degree of flexibility is needed as there is usually more than one possible synonym for any given word.

Let's continue our discussion with Changing grammar.


page last modified: February 9, 2016

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