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I often find myself looking up synonyms when writing and I recently realised that this process is a good case study for the importance of knowledge when using information systems.

Many of the suggested synonyms are inappropriate, but I only know this because I already have knowledge of these words. For instance, consider the first paragraph of this post with a number of words swapped for synonyms suggested by Google:

I ad nauseam find myself looking up synonyms when scrawling and I recently discovered that this affair is a good dossier for the momentousness of apprehension when using statistics institutions.

When I read this back, it reminds me of the sort of instructions that sometimes come with flat-pack furniture. It also reminds me of the way that students who are given dictionary definitions of words often use them incorrectly.

So, as ever, we need quite a lot of prior knowledge to make good use of information available online.


5 thoughts on “Synonyms

  1. This is so true. I have often had to explain to students that the word they have used as a synonym does not mean what they think it does in their context. Frequently they are unwilling to believe what I am saying, so embedded is the idea that because the dictionary definition is similar the words must be usable in the same way.

  2. I think that this is a really important issue in the way we test language knowledge. A common format for language test items is to ask which words are most similar in meaning for a given word, whereas what’s important is often how the words differ. For example, an item might ask which of the following words is the most similar to the meaning of the word “dungeon”:

    a) cage b) prison c) courtyard d) garage

    If a student can select (b) as the correct option, the intended interpretation is, presumably, that the student knows the meaning of the word dungeon, but for me, what is important is knowing how prison and dungeon differ, and in particular when it would be appropriate to use “dungeon” and when “prison” might be better…

    And of course, the way you learn that is to read lots and lots…

  3. Dylan Smith says:

    When I reach for a resource because I need a synonym, I’m only sometimes looking for a suitable word to lead into an idea or wording that my audience will appreciate. More often, I’m looking to recognize a particular meaning, a meaning I am somehow sure there’s an existing word for, the perfect word to fill that single-word vacancy in my train of thought.

    An aside: Young children find it easier to generate antonyms than synonyms for a given word and, if memory serves, I’ve read that this is a hard-wired, developmental universal. Perhaps that’s why the World is abound with discrimination and exclusion.

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