The Write Stuff

Synonymy and economy

2004-07-14 13:38

English is synonym-rich. One of the reasons for this is that its vocabulary includes not only words inherited from its Germanic past (yep, English is Germanic, just like German, Dutch, Afrikaans and Norwegian) but also words adopted from other languages, mainly French and its predecessor, Latin, and Latin's fellow Classical language, Greek. So, for example, we have a choice between "before" (Germanic) and "prior to" (Classical); "begin" (Germanic) and "commence" (Classical).

Unfortunately, down the years some words and phrases have come to be associated with cleverness or correctness, while the use of some of their simpler synonyms has come to be regarded as reflecting a defective vocabulary, ignorance of the finer nuances of the language, or possibly even a lower social standing.

All things being equal (and, of course, they often aren't) I prefer to use shorter rather than longer words/phrases - and this is, I emphasise, not a matter of right or wrong, but a matter of preference. Maybe I find the longer ones a little pretentious - or maybe just plain uneconomical. Why use a big word when a little one will do, or a "high-sounding", space-consuming, three-word phrase when a plainer, shorter equivalent would serve the same purpose? Is "Prior to relocating to Scottsville we resided in close proximity to the Botanical Gardens" any better than "Before we moved to Scottsville we lived near the Botanical Gardens"?

When a plainer style is an option, or when it may be necessary to shorten the rough draft of an essay or an assignment, it is almost always possible to find short substitutes for long phrases. Here are some examples, with the shorter equivalents in brackets: have a preference for (prefer); with regard to (regarding); the reason being that (because); on the assumption (assuming); my tendency is to (I tend to); bring to a conclusion (conclude, or end); subsequent to (after); come to an agreement (agree); a minimum of (at least); the majority of (most).

Longer phrases are not necessarily better; sometimes all they are is longer!

Note: for readers who may have been confused, this column should have preceded last week's one.

  • Nicky Grieshaber, formerly a university lecturer, is now a translator, text editor, study skills trainer and general entrepreneur.

    Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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