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The word synonymous has two meanings:

  • having the same meaning (e.g., small and little)
  • being strongly associated with (e.g., David Greenglass, a Man Whose Name Is Synonymous With Betrayal (Roberts, 2014)

Here we are concerned, mostly, with the first meaning.  David Greenglass is not, for our purposes, a synonym of betrayal.


Five related ideas:
Metonymy, Synecdoche, Simile, Metaphor, Hyponymy

All five of these are often considered subsets of synonymy.

the device of using a term closely associated with something actually to mean the thing.
For example:
    the White House has decided to come clean
(Adams, 2015).
The term The White House (and the addresses of many other government offices) is routinely used as a synonym for The American Government.
This is also used with many other government addresses around the world, for example:
    No 10 reveals and there will be no early general election before 2020 (Daily Telegraph website)
Other examples of metonymy include
    the stage
[to mean the theatre or the acting profession]
    the crown
to mean monarchy / power
    the bench
[to mean a judge or group of judges]
    a tongue
[to mean language]
this device involves the use of part of something to mean the whole or the whole of something to mean a part.  It's pronounced /sɪ.ˈnek.dək.ɪ/, by the way.
For example:
Part to stand for whole:
    head count
[in which head stands for person]
[to stand for portable radio]
[for spectacles]
[BrE slang for clothes]
[for motor car]
Whole to stand for part:
    Britain has won a gold medal
    Germany lost the race
    The police have arrived
    The army are guarding the port
is the device of making comparisons, often with the use of as ... as or like.  The sense of one item is carried over to the sense of the other so in this way they are synonyms.
For example:
    he's like a fish out of water
    he's as dull as ditchwater
    as fast as lightning
    she went like lightning
by contrast, metaphor is the device of using language for an item which actually is appropriate only to the synonym one implies.
For example:
    I have a lot on my plate [I'm very busy]
    cut and paste
[for computerised documents where physically cutting and pasting is not possible]
    a political body blow
    the election is a one-horse race
    he showered her with gifts
    she thundered through her presentation
Understanding metaphor is, of course, crucial to comprehending language.  There are those who would claim that metaphor is, in fact, the way we make sense of everything.
a relationship between words in which the meaning of one word includes the meaning of others which are closely related (compare synecdoche).
There are two bits to this:
The hypernym is the word which includes the meanings of others (often called the superordinate)
The hyponyms are all the second-level words which are related to each other
For example, the term vehicle is the hypernym of other terms like car, bus, tram, motorcycle, lorry, coach etc. so we can use vehicle as a synonym for bus and lorry in, e.g.
    A bus collided with a lorry outside the shop.  Both vehicles were badly damaged



Apart from the five categories above, there is, of course, synonymy proper.  For example

  1. We can say
        The pub's over the hill
        The pub's beyond the rise
    and, in the same context, the two prepositional phrases would be considered functionally synonymous.
    That's phrasal synonymy.
  2. We can say
        I'm eager to go
        I'm keen to go
    and few would argue that keen and eager mean pretty much the same thing.
    That's lexical synonymy.

Here's the cut-out-and-keep summary:


And here's a short test to see if you can identify all seven.

There are theoretical linguists and others who would not analyse synonymy like this.  So be it.  This site is concerned with categories which help language teachers understand how the language they are teaching fits together.


Synonymy in the classroom

As teachers, we are often reduced to explaining new vocabulary by resorting to synonyms that the learner knows and that's legitimate, providing we are careful.  There are, however, some problems which a more careful look at synonymy reveals.


Problems with using synonymy

sense problems

It has been claimed that:

By taking the synonym of a word, and then a synonym of that synonym, and so on, you can ultimately arrive at any other word in the English language.
(Probably Christopher Cinq-Mars, www.synonymy-game.com)

That can, in fact, only be true if you ignore shades of meaning and word class.  Clearly, if synonyms were exact matches, with exactly the same meanings, the game of hunt-the-synonym-chain could not function.  The only way one can arrive at 'any other word in the English language' is to follow shades of meaning and ignore word-class changes.
If you ignore the sense relationships, you can get from turquoise to depressed via blue (ignoring the dual meaning of blue), from appendage to machine gun via arm and from deposit to rely via bank if you ignore the fact that bank is, in this case, a set of homonyms.  You can also get from occupation to operate via work if you ignore the fact that work is a verb as well as a noun.
It's a good game but useless for teaching purposes because we are actually very concerned with meaning and word grammar.

Two lexemes may be synonymous in some senses but not in others.
For example
    Bring the papers with you = Bring the paperwork with you
    I like to read the Sunday papers ≠ I like to read the Sunday paperwork.
    The door is open = The door is unlocked
    The shops are not open on Saturdays ≠ The shop are not unlocked on Saturdays

Some linguists deny the existence of synonymy altogether.  They argue that, if we have two words then we need two words because they refer to different things.  It's a sustainable argument.

syntactical / colligational problems

Briefly, colligation refers to grammatical collocation.
A popular example of this problem are the words probable and likely.

  1. It's likely John will be late
    It's probable John will be late
  2. John will likely be late
    *John will probable be late

In 1., the two words are synonyms with the same grammatical characteristics but in 2., although the meaning is the same, the grammar isn't.  The words colligate differently.
We can't make the subject of the clause be the person identified in both cases but the construction with the dummy it works for both words.
By some definitions, these two words are not synonyms because full synonymy demands both semantic and structural similarity.  If we are only discussing meaning, they are synonyms.
Here are some more examples (mostly from Hudson et al (1996: 442)):

  1. try vs. attempt
        It's hard to get right but please try to
        It's hard to get right but please attempt to

        It's hard to get right but please try
        *It's hard to get right but please attempt

    The to complement is optional with try but obligatory with attempt
  2. ought and should, let and allow
    These are often synonyms but ought requires (usually) the to + infinitive and should never does; allow needs the to but let does not.  For example:
        I ought to go vs. *I ought go
        I should go vs. *I should to go
        I allowed her to go vs. *I allowed her go
        I let her go vs. *I let her to go
  3. stop vs. cease
        It stopped raining
        It ceased raining

        It ceased to rain
        *It stopped to rain
    may be followed by an infinitive or an -ing form but if stop is treated the same way the to is interpretable as in order to
  4. want vs. wish
        I want to go to London
        I wish to go to London

        I want the heater turned on
        *I wish the heater turned on
    does not permit a passive participle so the last sentence could be understood as
        It's a pity the heater is faulty and won't switch on
  5. sick, poorly, unwell
        The child was sick
        The child was poorly
        The child was unwell
        The sick child
        The poorly child

        *The unwell child
    Synonymous adjectives may have different characteristics in terms of attributive vs. predicative use.
  6. nearly vs. almost
        I nearly lost my temper
        I almost lost my temper
        I very nearly lost my temper

        *I very almost lost my temper
    The issue here is choice of modifier: almost cannot be modified with very.
  7. as well, also, too
        It rained as well
        It rained, too
        It rained also
        It also rained
        *It too rained
        *It as well rained
    Some words can have flexible word ordering; others are stricter.
  8. hide vs. conceal
        I hid it in the cupboard
        I concealed it in the cupboard
        I hid in the cupboard
        *I concealed in the cupboard.
    Transitivity with otherwise synonymous verbs is sometimes an issue.  The verb conceal is always transitive.
  9. though and although
    are often presented to learners as synonyms.  Conceptually, they are but syntactically they are not.  The word though can be a conjunct or a conjunction but although is only a conjunction.  We can accept, therefore:
        The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, though.
        The work was done on time though it was more expensive than I expected
        The work was done on time although it was more expensive than I expected

    but not:
        *The work was done on time.  It was more expensive than I expected, although.

connotational problems

Lexemes may be synonymous in sense (denotation) but not in connotation.
For example, determined. pig-headed and stubborn mean much the same thing but have positive or negative connotations.  Compare, too, terrorist, freedom fighter, partisan and resistance fighter.
A doctor and a quack may do the same job but are viewed rather differently.

collocational / word class problems

We can have tough rope and strong rope as well as strong people and tough people but other collocations are not possible: strong winds not *tough winds, a tough job not *a strong job and so on.
The words small and little form another popular example. We can have, e.g., a small town and a little town (although little would collocate better with village).
On the other hand, we can also have a little girl and a small girl but the first implies young and the second, diminutive size.  Unfortunately, too, little is also commonly a determiner so we can have a little more, please but not *a small more, please and a little time later and not usually ?a small time later.
The word small is only adjectival and it's sometimes hard to see this.  We can have, e.g., a small difficulty and a little difficulty (both adjectival) but he did it with little difficulty (determiner) vs. *he did it with small difficulty.

stylistic problems

Words may be synonyms but vary in formality.  For example, He's a dustman vs. He's a cleansing operative.  toilet, loo, bog, bathroom, restroom, john are all words for the same thing but stylistically very different.
    I wonder if you would mind opening the window
    Please open the window
    Let's have the window open, shall we?
are functionally synonymous but stylistically and communicatively different.

register problems
sport register

We have cricket pitches, football grounds and tennis courts: they all mean something like playing area and are synonyms.
A porthole is the same thing as a window, a cabin is a bedroom and a galley is a kitchen but the first of each pair are found on ships and the others in homes.
    a doctor's examination
is not synonymous with
    a car mechanic's inspection
although the words inspection and examination are often considered synonyms.

affixation problems

Word formation causes problems if an assumption is made that two words are synonymous in all ways.  For example
we can have unwise but not *unsage although wise and sage are often synonyms.
we can make a noun from adore with a suffix (adoration) but we can't do the same with love or worship.
the verbs esteem and respect are often synonymous (both as nouns and verbs) but a moment's thought reveals that their properties vis-à-vis suffixation are different.  We can have respectful, but not *esteemful, disrespect but not *disesteem.

variety problems

A BrE lift is an elevator in AmE, and there are hundreds of other synonymous terms.  Other varieties of English around the world demonstrate similar pairings.  There are structural differences between AmE and BrE, too.


CAUTION, therefore

Although it can be helpful simply to provide what we think is a synonym for something a learner doesn't understand, it's a technique to handle with a little care or we will end up seriously misleading our learners and there's no excuse for that.



It should be clear by now that it isn't enough to say this word or phrase means the same as that one.  That procedure is fraught with perils and is the source of much confusion and, what's worse, teacher-induced error.


Exploiting lexical and phrasal synonymy

A favourite of course-book writers and some teachers are exercises which require the learners to find words in a text which mean the same as words in a list provided.
Here's an example of why it doesn't always help:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is navigated on foot or by vehicle. Players control the three lead protagonists throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of missions. The story is centred on the heist sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and driving gameplay. Players who commit crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the aggression of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in cooperative or competitive game matches.
Find words in the text which mean:
found your way
steering a car
do a crime

All the words are synonyms of the words in the text.  However, if we replace them the text (as learners are being encouraged to do mentally) we end up with:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is found your way on foot or by vehicle. Players regulate the three lead heroes throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of operations. The story is centred on the robbery sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and steering a car gameplay. Players who do a crime crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the hostility of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in supportive or competitive game matches.

Which is close to nonsense in places.
To avoid this kind of thing, we need to be much more careful and consider: syntax, sense, connotation, collocation, style, register and variety.

Here's what we should have done:

Grand Theft Auto:
The game is played from either a third-person or first-person view and its world is navigated on foot or by vehicle. Players control the three lead protagonists throughout the single-player mode, switching between them both during and outside of missions. The story is centred on the heist sequences, and many of the missions involve shooting and driving gameplay. Players who commit crimes may incite a response from law enforcement agencies, measured by a "wanted" system that governs the aggression of their response. Grand Theft Auto Online, the online multiplayer mode, lets up to 30 players explore the open world and engage in cooperative or competitive game matches.
Find the parts of the text which mean:
people take part in the game
and you walk or drive around
players are in charge of the three important characters
the story mainly concerns
scenes of robberies
players who break the law
the police
work together or against each other

By focusing on mostly phrasal synonymy, we can maintain the sense of the text and increase our learners' knowledge of the language without producing unnatural or misleading examples.  Simple, but it needs a little thought.

a note on word class

Synonyms must, of course, share the same word class.  If we decide to have a synonym matching task, we need to be careful that the items share a word class and we are not offering, e.g., look up to as a synonym for admiring or do the washing as a synonym for laundry.
This error in materials design is more common than you may imagine (and more common than it should be).


Exploiting metonymy, synecdoche and hyponymy

As these three devices are similar in many ways (lots of people can't distinguish between them) we don't really need to trouble our learners with the subtleties of use.

We can, however, and most certainly should, raise our learners' consciousness of just how commonly these are used in both written and spoken English.
For example, an exercise like this often performs a very useful function because it raises learners' awareness of how one term may stand in for another, providing that there is a close association.

What words in red on the left carry the same meaning as words on the right in black?  Circle and draw lines between the words.
What is happening here?  Discuss with a partner and then tell the class.
Downing Street has issued a press release. Watch the ball carefully.
His residence is normally in Spain but he is staying in a house in London now. The British Prime Minister's Office has issued a press release.
Keep your eye on the ball. After acting in the theatre, he started working in the film industry.
He went into film after a time on the stage. He usually lives in a house in Spain but his residence is in London now.

In the above there are examples of all three of these synonym devices.  Identify them, if you will.

If you are using a reading text in class, look out for examples like this so you can be prepared to alert your learners to what is happening and what term is standing for another.


Using simile

As we saw above, simile in English is often achieved with the as ... as or like connections.  The as ... as connection, in particular, frequently forms common, fixed binomial expressions (or clichés if you prefer) such as
    deaf as a post, as dead as a doornail, as blind as a bat, as cool as a cucumber, as fit as a fiddle etc.
The like formulation also occurs in fixed expressions such as
    like a breath of fresh air, like a man possessed, like a tornado
There is a cline here from more or less fixed expressions to more flexible semi-fixed ones.  (For more, go to the guide to idiomaticity linked in the list of related guides at the end.)

Simile can also be achieved without the use of any connector except a copula of some kind:
    she's a bit of a dragon
    he's becoming something of a grumpy old bear
etc.  Rarely, similes can be made with -like or -wise suffixes:
    she talked machine-gun-like
    they walked crabwise

The like formulation to compare two things is rather more flexible and it's routine for speakers to make them up as they go along to imply something is synonymous with something else in some sense.  For example
    he talks like a machine gun (sounds)
    she sings like a crow (sings)
    it's like a bad dream (feels)
Fixed similes and the ability confidently to deploy the like formulation to add meaning are both important for learners of a language and the area is not difficult to teach.  In particular, the ability to use sound, look, taste, feel, seem, smell + like is important.  Both fixed phrases and the ability to use simile can be taught.  Here are a couple of ideas:

Match the phrase on the left with the ones on the right:
as blind as a cucumber
as safe as a bat
as fit as gold
as cool as mustard
as old as a fiddle
as good as houses
as thin as clockwork
as regular as rain
as keen as the hills
as right as a rake

Spot the simile and underline it.  Can you say the same in your language?
The rain was so heavy, it felt like a monsoon and John arrived looking and feeling like a drowned rat.
The house was a complete tip and looked like a bomb had hit it.  He went through it like a whirlwind, clearing everything up because he know his mother would explode if she got home and found it in that state.  By the time he'd finished, he was dog tired but happy that the house seemed a bit more like a proper home and less like a students' common room.  It smelt a bit less like a takeaway pizzeria, too.

Completing expressions can also be helpful and lead to some interesting cross-language comparisons such as:

sleep like ________
sing like ________
work like ________
run like ________
smoke like ________
drink like ________

Once presented, such structures can be reinforced with gap-fill tests to locate acceptable combinations and with freer exercises to compare common objects, actions, people, situations and so on.  It's not difficult to do that.

Some of these fixed similes have alternatives, with alternative meanings.  For example, we can have
    run like a hare [fast]
    run like a rabbit [in fear]
    run like clockwork [smoothly]
All languages do this kind of thing and have traditional similes for many common verbs and nouns.  It can be amusing, interesting and educational to do some cross-language analysis with learners.
For example, the expression
    that story is as old as the hills
will translate into German roughly as
    that story has a long beard
In the same language, however,
    as poor as a church mouse
translates word for word.
In French, that would be
    as poor as Job
    to smoke like a chimney
in that language translates as
    to smoke like a fireman
The expression:
    as flat as a pancake
translates exactly into Swedish and so does
    as slippery as an eel
    stubborn as a mule
might translate as
    as stubborn as an old goat
In Hungarian,
    drink like a fish
is rendered as
    drink like a brush maker
In Spanish, finally
    sleep like a log
translates as
    sleep like a dog
    mad as a hatter
translates into
    crazy as a goat
Learners will, naturally, often assume that similes will translate across languages – they rarely do, but it's fun finding out.

needle in a haystack

Using metaphor

a needle in a haystack  

Note that in the spot-the-simile exercise we have sneakily inserted one metaphor: explode.  We do not mean that the mother will actually explode.

Metaphor is a more difficult, but, many would argue, even more important area to tackle simply because metaphor is so common in English.  It is almost impossible to understand much of the language unless you are alert to metaphorical uses.  It has been asserted that nearly all thought and language is metaphor of some kind.

Consider these examples:
    he hammered on the door
    she was boiling with rage
    his face darkened
    that's music to my ears
    I have a mountain of work to do
In none of these is the word meant literally; nobody used a hammer, boiled, went dark, heard music or saw a mountain.

Writers have deployed metaphor for thousands of years to make a point more vivid.
Even in Harry Potter, not otherwise considered great literature, they occur quite frequently.  For example:

she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences
they drain peace, hope, and happiness out of the air around them

The master was PG Wodehouse who, it is said, invented a new metaphor (or simile) on almost every page:

Jeeves shimmered in
the supply of the milk of human kindness was short by several gallons
the voice of Love seemed to call to me, but it was a wrong number
unseen in the background, Fate was quietly slipping lead into the boxing-glove
the butler loomed in the doorway

As with similes, many of the metaphorical expressions commonly used in English have become clichés and are more or less fixed.  They can be approached in a way similar to the ideas for simile above.  For example,

Choose the right word:
She ___________ with rage exploded, banged, burst
They ____________ into tears exploded, went off, burst
He ________ the idea down shot, destroyed, gunned
He ________ his success trumpeted, sang, drummed
We are ________ with the problem weighed, loaded, saddled
There's light at the end of the ________ road, way, tunnel
He ________ through the agenda motored, hurtled, steamed

Human emotion, of course, is a rich field:
We explode, erupt, spit blood, burn, boil, seethe, become volcanic etc. with anger and happiness has us on top of the world, over the moon, flying high, walking on air etc.
Here are some more (mostly from Verspoor, 1993)
Anger Happiness Sadness Love Fear
boiling in high spirits have the blues starry-eyed petrified
blowing a fuse making merry broken up falling for someone frozen
blowing up on cloud nine with a heavy heart stuck on someone shaking in your shoes
blowing your top tickled pink in the dumps swept off your feet spine chilling
foaming at the mouth in heaven have a long face losing your heart give someone the creeps
fuming in paradise crest-fallen struck with someone paralyzed
storming glowing (with) heartbroken sweet on someone hair standing on end
flying off the handle over the moon aching head over heels in love jump out of your skin

Any section of the above would provide raw material for an interesting presentation and practice of common metaphors.

All fields of activity are called on to make metaphors and that can be a useful way to approach raising learners' awareness of them.
For example:

Match the metaphor with the topic:    
The crowd was a sea of umbrellas military
Attach a file
It's all a bit of a dog's dinner
The idea sank without trace
It sticks in my throat
Use Notebook science
I'll chew the idea over
Sweet dreams
It's a bitter pill to swallow
It'll be plain sailing from here
It was a battle of wills food and drink
The sweet smell of success
He's eaten up with envy
The idea was floated
The idea started a chain reaction
He's a couch potato the sea and ships
Put it on the clipboard
Open the folder
The taste of freedom
There are choppy waters ahead
Cut and paste the section office equipment
We have an ocean of work to do
She fought her ground
I gave it a wide berth
Bitter memories / experience

productive practice

Getting learners actually to use metaphor is somewhat more difficult but at all levels they need to be aware of the device and be able to unpack what's being said or written.
That said, designing written tasks which require the use of standard (clichéd?) metaphors is a good beginning.
Expressing emotion is a place to start.  For example:

Re-write the following to make them more emphatic and interesting.  The first is an example.
He was very angry indeed He blew his top
He was very afraid  
The boys are really happy  
When she saw the mess she was very upset  
He is very in love with Mary  
The poor man is very unhappy  
When she left him she made him sad  
The film made her feel afraid  
She was very surprised by the sudden noise  
She was very satisfied with her examination result  

Clearly, you have to present two or three ways of expressing anger, happiness, fear and love before your learners can begin to tackle the exercise but many find that the knowledge that they are writing / speaking more naturally very satisfying.
A follow-up exercise could be to get learners to prepare to tell an anecdote about a time they were very happy / sad / angry / in love etc. and to include a selection of metaphors before telling their story to other people.
You can do the same thing with other semi-fixed metaphors:
Re-write the following to make them more emphatic and interesting.  The first is an example.
They argued for a pay rise They battled for a pay rise
He put the idea to the meeting float
It will be easy from here sail
We have lots and lots of work to do mountain
The website is a real mess dog
If I were you, I'd avoid him berth
Everyone in the crowd was wearing blue sea

You can include or omit the clues as you see fit, of course.
And you can follow that up with a more productive exercise in which learners write / talk / write then talk about a situation including three or four metaphors from a list.
An interesting game is to get learners to speak about a topic for 2 minutes, inserting one of the target metaphors.  Others have to listen carefully and shout out when they hear the metaphor.  It's a bit of fun.

Related guides
semantics for more on the meaning of meaning
polysemy for a guide to Homonymy, Polysemy and Monosemy
the roots of English for a guide which helps to explain where synonyms in English originate and why there are so many of them
context for more on what it affects and sources of context for teaching

Adams, M, 2015, in http://www.hightimes.com, July 16, 2015
Hudson, R, Rosta, A, Holmes, J and Gisborne, N, 1996, Synonyms and syntax, Journal of Linguistics 32: 439–446
Riemer, N, 2010, Introducing Semantics, New York: Cambridge University Press
Roberts, S, 2014, in the New York Times, October 15, 2014
http://www.synonymy.com/index.html for a common synonym database
http://www.synonymy-game.com for a game based on synonym chains
Verspoor, C, 1993, What are the Characteristics of Emotional Metaphors? at http://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi= [accessed October 2015]