Word Traveler: Differences Between Similar Words
This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.
English has the largest vocabulary and the greatest number of synonyms of any language in the world. This is due to the fact that the English language has grown by constantly incorporating words from other languages as well as freely created new multiword terms or phrases.
Near synonyms in English are therefore of many kinds. Some groups of similar words, like foreword, preface, introduction, seem to overlap in meaning. Some, like plain, steppe, pampas, prairie, savannah, and tundra refer to geographical variants of the same thing. Others, like teach, educate, indoctrinate, instruct, school, and tutor, differ from each other mainly in degrees of generality or specification. Some words of similar meaning make distinctions at the concrete, descriptive level: cant, careen, heel, list, slant, slope, tilt, tip are synonyms only if translated into a more general form, incline. Some groups of words describe the same actions, but imply different relationships. Some differences between and among words reveal varying degrees of formality in the occasions being described.
There are really no exact synonyms, especially when one considers the total range of contexts in which a word may be used. No two words are interchangeable in all the contexts in which either might appear. But within a given context, there is some exact synonymy. And we must keep in mind that words continually change in meaning according to time and place and circumstance - though there is also plenty of stability in the English vocabulary, too.
So, this is why English has thesauri - but also why lexicographers urge people to use a thesaurus with a dictionary. Nothing is as important as clear and accurate expression and to this end one must be able to distinguish between words of similar, but not identical, meaning. To choose wrongly may give the listener or reader an erroneous impression. To choose well is to make oneself understood. The study of the differences among similar words will help people come closer to saying what they really mean.
At Thesaurus.com, we've added some brief "difference notes" to the search results page that help users of the thesaurus discern between words that are sometimes or often confused. Check out these words - abnormal, awhile - for examples of this feature.