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Friday, August 26, 2016

EwR Practice - Using Synonyms to Learn New English Vocabulary


One of the most common approaches used by second language learners of English in order to learn new vocabulary is to use a bilingual dictionary in both English and their own native tongue.  Just because this method is probably used by the majority of people learning English as a second language, that doesn't make it necessarily the best possible approach in order to learn new vocabulary.  Let's explore another option which will give you better results in order to learn new words in English.  This system will take you far less time to remember them.  That is to say, use a dictionary of synonyms (e.g., a thesaurus) in order to learn vocabulary words in English, and refrain from using a typical bilingual dictionary.

Let's consider the following five questions below in order to find out why this practice is much more effective than the old traditional way.

First and foremost, you need to understand the meaning of the word "synonym", and know what it involves. A word (or an expression) equivalent to another word (or expression) is called a "synonym".  Any words that are considered synonyms of each other can be interchanged and used in the same context in written or spoken communication.  For example, the words "talk", "speak", "chat", and "gab" are all considered synonyms of each other.  You can choose any of these words to replace the blank in the following statement, "I love to _______ with my best friend on the phone".

However, it is important to remember that synonyms are not exact replacements for one another.  They are words and expressions that are similar to each other which have very close meanings, but not necessarily the exact same meaning.  Slight nuances exist among them.  Let's reconsider the four words mentioned in the previous paragraph.  "Talk" means to exchange your thoughts and opinions with someone else.  The meaning of "speak" is to express your thoughts out loud using words.  "Chat" signifies to talk with someone in a familiar and casual way.  And the meaning of "gab" is to talk in a trivial way or to gossip.  Now you can see that these meanings are similar, but not exactly the same.  If you replace each of these words in the statement used above ("I love to _______ with my best friend on the phone"), their meanings are similar, but not exactly the same.  In this particular case, the verb that you choose depends on what kind of verbal communication you want to emphasize that you have with your best friend on the phone.

Here is a simplified way of visualizing what synonyms are.  Take a look at the following photo that someone took of me.  Would you say that the situation is the same in each photo?  Are all three of these photos exactly the same?  Yes, the context of each photo is the same because each photo was taken in the same place, but all three photos are not exactly the same.  The first photo on the left is the "original" photo, the one in the middle is posterized, and the photo on the right is a "negative" of the original photo.

These three photos are like synonyms.  The context is the same, the meanings are similar, but slight nuances exist among them.  If you talk about any of these three photos to someone, you would describe the same setting where the photo was taken.  However, you would note the slight differences that exist among them; namely, that one is the "original", one has been "posterized", and one is the "negative" of the original one.  This is what synonyms are all about.  You use synonyms to tell a similar story about something, but each time you use a different word with a slightly different distinction in meaning.  In the case of the three photos above, each story that you tell has a little different color of meaning based on the same context.

Secondarily, the importance of using synonyms in order to learn second language vocabulary is not obvious to everyone.  Therefore, an explanation about their importance will be given here.  If you learn to carefully choose appropriate synonyms during your written or oral communication, then you will be able to express yourself clearer to others.  The meaning of what you want to convey to someone in writing or during speech will be more exact.

When you discover the nuances of the different meanings of synonyms, you will be more selective when using them, and your communication will become more precise and relevant. You will learn to say exactly what it is that you want to transmit from your thoughts and ideas.  Your precise communication will alleviate errors in miscommunication, making your ideas more interesting and stimulating, and will prevent monotony in your wording.

And yet, another good reason to use different words that are alike is to acquire a richer understanding of interpretation among words that are similar, but not exact in meaning.  You acquire more knowledge about a field of study when you learn words that are associated with it.  Synonyms play an important role in this learning process.

Third of all, the recommended strategy to use in order to learn second language English synonyms, and new vocabulary associated with synonyms, is to do the following.  Instead of looking up a word in a bilingual dictionary, choose a good thesaurus in English.  (See the answer to Question 5 below for a list of good thesauruses to use.)  Don’t try to translate a word from your mother tongue into English.  Instead, think of a word that you already know in English that is close in meaning to the word that you are trying to discover.  If you don't know, then guess.  Use your intuition based on what you have heard or read in the past in order to choose an initial word to begin your primary search with.

Then look up your initial word choice in a thesaurus.  Study the list of synonyms for your word.  Use your instincts and see if you find another different word that better describes the initial word that you were looking for.  Then start a secondary word search with your second word choiceContinue using the thesaurus in order to refine your searches until you discover a final word that you are satisfied with.  Now look up the definition of your final word choice in an English dictionary and see if that's the meaning that you were originally looking for.  If the signification of this final word matches the sense of meaning that you are looking for, then you have found your word.  Congratulations!

If your final word meaning is not what exactly what you are looking for, then start from the beginning and choose another new wordContinue using your intuition, but now you have new information from your recent searches which can help you to select a new initial word.  Begin a new search in the thesaurus again until you find a word that provides the real meaning of the word that you were looking for to begin with.

This is a good system to use because it forces you to stay in the second language when you are researching possible similar words.  You use your previous knowledge and experience with the English language in order to investigate and find word meanings.  And, at the same time, you practice using your intuition in order to discover new words that are similar in meaning to the word in your primary search.

Fourthly, the advantages of learning to use synonyms include the following.  It can help a second language learner to build and enhance their English vocabulary usage.  Instead of limiting yourself to using the same old words all the time in order to say the same thing, you can learn new words that have similar meanings.  In other words, expand your ability to express yourself more precisely during oral communication by using synonyms.  For example, if you are always using the verb "explain" in your conversations with others, why not consider using its synonyms account for, clarify, define, elaborate or interpret instead of always using the same word?

Another advantage of using synonyms is that it can help you improve your writing skills.  Using synonyms is not restricted only to verbal communication.  Good writers learn to use synonyms in order to liven the reading experience for their readers.  Therefore, learn to write better by using synonyms.  For example, if you are always using the sentence connector word "therefore", choose one of its synonyms (e.g., accordingly, as a result, consequently, for that reason, hence, thus) in order to say the same thing in your writing.  Your reader will appreciate it, and your written material will be much more appealing to them.

One further advantage of learning to use synonyms includes the fact that your reading level will elevate.  You will experience a better understanding of what you are reading because you will be able to recognize the nuances in the meanings of words that are similar to each other.  Authors use synonyms throughout their writing in order to make your reading experience more interesting and entertaining.  The author wants to maintain your interest and attention so that you will continue reading their book.  Synonyms are one of the tricks to this tactic.

In consideration of the last question mentioned at the beginning of this article, numerous learning sources exist for second language students of English who want to learn new vocabulary using the method explained above.  In fact, there are many online English Synonym Dictionaries which are free to use, but the ones recommended here in order of importance include the Thesaurus found in,, and  The first online reference includes synonyms from three dictionaries including Collins, Roget's and WordNet.  The second online source includes additional information about word origin and history, and includes example sentences as well.  The third online source is good for quick reference, but includes less information than the other two. you prefer using a hardback or a paperback thesaurus rather than an online wordbook of synonyms, then take a look at this list of books available for purchase 

If you are interested, you can also consider three of the most famous thesauruses shown here in the three illustrations 

Each learner has their own preference for looking up words in a dictionary, whether it be online or in a book.  Choose the one that best suits you.


In summary, the usage of a same-language synonym dictionary (also called a thesaurus) instead of a bilingual dictionary is a relatively new and effective approach to learning original vocabulary in English.  Synonyms can help you make your writing and conversations much more appealing to your readers and listeners.  No one likes to listen to someone who is always repeating themselves.  If you are using the same words all the time during your communications with others, your listeners and readers get accustomed to this habit, and eventually they tend to pay less attention to what you have to say.

After you make it a habit to use your favorite thesaurus from the numerous resources that exist, you will learn new words for many words that you already know.  Your vocabulary will quickly grow, and you will be more interested in learning new words since you have a strategy to employ in order to master and remember them.

This system is not just for non-native users of English.  I myself am using this same strategy right now as I write these words in this blog entry.  My favorite online thesaurus is constantly opened in a separate window on my computer so that I can find synonyms to words that I repeatedly use when I write my articles.  I want my writing to be stimulating and interesting for my readers, like you, so I "practice what I preach".

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