It’s easy to guess the first question that comes to mind — what is a synonym?

According to Lexicographer Kory Stamper, English has borrowed words from other languages since infancy. Whether it’s French, Greek, or Latin, loanwords account for 80 percent of English dictionary entries.

Of course, such extensive borrowing comes with unavoidable consequences.

It means we will have duplicates — words that sound alike and words that have the same meaning or pronunciation. As a result, the English language has several homophones, homonyms, and synonyms.

That brings us back to the initial question:

What is a Synonym?

A synonym refers to a word or phrase with the same or nearly the same meaning as another word in a specific context. For example, the words pretty, good-looking, handsome, and attractive have similar meanings in English. They are synonymous!

So how do you identify a synonym?

According to grammar experts, substitution is the standard way to identify or test a synonym. It involves checking if a word or phrase can replace another in a sentence without changing its meaning.

In other words, we use synonyms based on the specific context. Consider the sentences below:

  1. The older man expired at midnight. 
  2. Molly’s passport expired last month. 

The word expired refers to the older man’s death in the first sentence. Yet, you can’t describe a passport as dead. In other words, the words expire, and dead are not synonymous in all contexts.

So what are the types of synonyms?

Types of Synonyms in the English Language


Synonyms can either be formal or informal based on the context. There are also near-synonyms, words that have almost the same meaning.

Formal Synonyms

Formal synonyms are ideal when you’re writing a business or academic paper. It’s also best to use such standard language for speeches and other professional purposes.

For example, some formal synonyms for money are cash, funds, capital, finances, currency, and banknotes.

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Photo by Jason Leung on Unsplash

Informal Synonyms

Unlike formal synonyms, informal synonyms occur in a less traditional context. They are often present more in speech than writing and are usually restricted to a specific context or group of people.

For example, some informal synonyms for money are bread or dough.


Near-synonyms have similar meanings to other terms in some contexts but not in others. In other words, the words are not perfectly identical.

For example, angry and irritable are near-synonyms.

As you may have guessed, near-synonyms are more common than exact synonyms. Indeed, a thesaurus often consists of a simple list of synonyms and near-synonyms.

So why do we use words with similar meaning in writing?

Uses of Synonyms in Writing

Writers use synonyms for elegant variation, to express nuances, and for specific technical purposes.

Using Synonyms for Elegant Variation

An elegant variation involves substituting one word for another for variety. With that, you can avoid repeating the same word in close proximity. Consider the sentence below:

  • Dr. Brown seriously maintains that soon, opium smoking will be as serious as the absinthe scourge in France.

According to lexicographer H.W. Fowler, replacing serious with grave would improve the sentence significantly. That’s because seriously and serious don’t relate to the same thing in this context.

Using Synonyms to Express Nuances

You can use synonyms to express subtle or shades of meaning in expressions. This is a clever way to make your writing more engaging — by using more lively words. Consider the example below:

  1. Harry’s hair was dark.
  2. Harry’s hair was inky.

The second sentence offers a more vivid description of Harry’s hair. It makes your writing more intriguing.

Examples of Synonyms

There are many English synonyms, and each has a unique meaning and use. Here are some to note:

  • Cause — source, root, origin, genesis, base, and foundation
  • Beautiful — attractive, pretty, handsome, pleasing, and alluring
  • Encourage — hearten, cheer, uplift, inspire, motivate, and stir
  • Help — assist, aid, help out, be of service to, and benefit
  • Like — such as, for example, for instance, and in particular
  • New — latest, current, contemporary, advanced, and up to date
  • Work — labor, toil, exertion, effort, slog, struggle, and service
  • Want — desire, fancy, take a fancy to, like, wish for, and hope for
  • Time — rhythm, tempo, pulse, beat, flow, and cadence
  • Learn — grasp, master, take in, absorb, assimilate, and digest

It’s worth noting that antonyms are the opposite of synonyms. An antonym is a word that means the opposite of another word. For example, the opposite of on time is to be late.

To Wrap Up: Using Synonyms to Improve Your Vocabulary

When you’re stuck for words, a synonym is a viable alternative. As a writer, you can use synonyms to add finesse and nuance to your writing. Learning about synonyms is also an incredible way to improve at using words for your stories. It can help your writing soar to higher levels.

Pam is an expert grammarian with years of experience teaching English, writing and ESL Grammar courses at the university level. She is enamored with all things language and fascinated with how we use words to shape our world.

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