Looking for the Best Word? Tip #12

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A series exploring similar and dissimilar words for ways writers might make their work more varied, accessible, interesting, accurate and effective.

A good thesaurus gives substitutes for the idea of a word, but not all are true synonyms. Context is vital. Placing alternative words in the same sentence to see if they actually make sense is a way of checking their suitability. But it’s not foolproof, so a good dictionary is essential.

My chosen dictionary is the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. For word choices, I prefer the 1987 edition of Roget’s Thesaurus, which sits close by my desk. However, I try to dig the best word from my overloaded memory first: it’s good mental exercise. Other books of words, which I consult when the pertinent term evades me, live on my reference shelf, behind me.

So, to this week’s words, which are often considered synonyms for each other:

Empathy – Roget lists these headers: bond, attraction, imagination, participation, feeling, benevolence. Under the sub-heading ‘feeling’ it lists another 56 alternatives, including affective, experiencing, intuitive, empathetic, reacting, and condoling.

But we need to look at the definition as well here; the SOED defines empathy as: ‘The power of mentally identifying oneself with (and so fully comprehending) a person or object of contemplation.

Sympathy – Roget lists the following headers: bond, attraction, imagination, aid, cooperation, concord, participation, feeling, liking, friendliness, love, benevolence, condolence, pity. From ‘feeling’ flow the same further options listed above under ‘empathy’.

And the SOED definition? The initial definitions for sympathy are mostly historical, rare or obsolete, so we’ll use the more contemporary definition here: ‘A favourable attitude towards a party, cause, etc.; inclination to favour or support; agreement with or approval of an opinion, aim, etc.’

As you can see, many of the suggestions from the thesaurus are identical for both words and will lead to the same set of synonyms. These two words illustrate the limitations of a thesaurus and why we need a dictionary if our understanding is to be clear and our usage accurate.

Let’s look at usage for empathy first:

‘A writer, especially of fiction, needs to develop empathy with characters if portrayals of their emotions, actions and responses are to be credible to readers.’

We could substitute some of the listed alternatives in this sentence, but only if we’re willing to alter the structure slightly: ‘A writer…to experience alongside characters…’, or ‘A writer…needs intuitive understanding of characters…’ But are either of these as effective? That’s for the writer to decide.

Now let’s look at sympathy:

‘A writer simply using sympathy with or for fictional characters, will inevitably depict emotions, actions and responses based as much on the author’s viewpoint as that of the character portrayed.’

Here we could substitute some of the alternatives, but again only with some restructuring: ‘A writer only affected by fictional characters…’, or ‘A writer merely condoling with fictional characters…’ Again, we need to decide whether these are as effective as sentences.

English contains many instances of broad ideas expressed by a wide range of words, where subtle changes in meaning exist. The thesaurus alone is rarely able to help a writer select the right word in these circumstances, and the dictionary becomes essential. It’s vital we, as wordsmiths, understand the true meaning of the words we use if we’re to get our message across accurately.

I welcome comments and suggestions here. Please use the comments section to give your ideas and thoughts.

For a short introduction to this series, please click this link.

2 thoughts on “Looking for the Best Word? Tip #12

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