English is a startling language, as those who use it know. Amongst many claims about language, most of which are difficult to prove, English is recognised as one of the top 3 most widely spoken languages. It’s also a second language in many countries. Whilst ‘Chinese’ is spoken by more people, this gives a slightly false impression as Chinese isn’t a language but a collection of languages, 13 in total. Spanish is spoken by more people than English, but lacks the distinction of English, which is used internationally by most organisations. It’s estimated English comprises a total of over 1,000,000 words. But, again, this claim is subject to qualification. See this link for further information.
Due to its peculiar history, English has a number of ways of stating the same thing (or at least things that have similarities). So, in this series of posts, I’m going to look at some similar, and dissimilar, words in an effort to suggest ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate or effective.
I’m aiming this series at fiction writers, but the material should interest nonfiction writers, too. I’ll illustrate words by using them in sentences to show how they can be used effectively.
A good thesaurus provides alternatives for the idea of a word you may be seeking, but not all those suggestions are true synonyms. Context is important. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see whether they actually make sense is one way of determining whether they’re suitable synonyms. However, it’s not a foolproof method, so a good dictionary is vital.
I prefer to use the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus. It sits on the windowsill within easy reach of my desk. However, I always try to dig the optimum word out of my overburdened memory first: good mental exercise. Other books of word choices, which I sometimes consult when the apposite word evades me, reside on my reference shelf, behind me.
So, to the first example:
Abandon – listed in Roget’s extensive index are the following headers: exclude, depart, disregard, tergiversate, relinquish, resign, not retain, excitable state, merriment, rejoicing, intemperance and sensualism. These are all words associated with the idea of abandon, rather than necessarily being direct synonyms. Under ‘exclude’ alone are a further 100 suggestions, so you can imagine the wealth of variations available. How to decide which to choose?
‘Rusting machinery lay abandoned where it had been left.’
This suggests the machinery has been discarded, and that word is a suitable synonym. But some writers are attracted by unusual vocabulary and might decide on ‘tergiversate’ as an alternative. ‘Rusting machinery lay tergiversated where it had been left.’ To the innocent, this might seem an impressive sentence. However, ‘tergiversate’ means to change allegiance, to change your mind, and is therefore not at all suitable. The resulting sentence would identify the writer as careless with language. And language is as much a tool of our trade as the scalpel is that of the surgeon.
‘It was caught only lightly on a couple of barbs, for all the world as if it had been tossed there in careless abandon.’
Here we have something that has been tossed aside as the result of a lack of temperance. We might imagine an article of clothing caught on barbed wire, perhaps stripped off in a moment of exuberance, celebrating freedom of movement. Again, if we simply selected an alternative from the list given, we might be tempted to use ‘relinquish’ here: ‘It was caught only lightly on a couple of barbs, for all the world as if it had been tossed there in careless relinquishment’ Awful, but the sentence could be restructured to make it better. However, relinquishing something suggests the abandonment may not have been entirely voluntary. The original sentence indicates a purely voluntary action and, in the context of the novel from which this comes, is appropriate to the free-spirited character it relates to.
The original sentences are from Breaking Faith, a romantic thriller.
This has been a fairly lengthy introductory post. Following pieces will lack the introduction and concentrate on the selected words. They’ll be a lot shorter! Also, as these posts take time to prepare, I’ll be doing just one a week and, in future, they’ll appear on a Friday. Hope that’s not a problem for anyone.
I welcome comments, questions and observations. Please feel free to have your say below.