The Importance of Synonyms in Writing

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There is much thought given to English Language teaching in recent years here in Singapore, with the latest revision being made in 2010 by the Ministry of Education (MOE).

One area of improvement that could be included in greater detail and emphasis will be the teaching of synonyms to students. Synonyms are crucial to the mastery of English at all levels of learning and should be taught to students from a young age.

There are some who hold the perception that synonyms have to do more with narrative writing than discursive or argumentative writing, and thus have not much applicability beyond a students’ schooling years – considering that narrative writing probably doesn’t hold much clout in the workplace.

I beg to differ as narrative writing – or fiction writing (in a more generic sense) – explores one’s and others’ inner feelings and motivations through one of the oldest tools of mankind – stories. Man has been using fairy tales and folk tales from the early years to educate the later generations (even in the absence of conventional schools) and hence it is indeed saddening to see that this medium of transmission – often through literature – is dwindling.

Synonyms have various advantages in fiction and real life narration. For one, it grants precision to one’s description. Students are often taught different action verbs in class. Take the example of the word “walk”, one of the most commonly utilized words by primary school students in their compositions. Teachers would often teach them alternatives and variations of this word, such as saunter, meander, strut, swagger and many more. However, the actions are not often demonstrated by the teachers in class, which is regrettable. For such  learning purposes, teachers should combine words on the white board with actions to fully demonstrate the meaning of these action verbs and enable students to internalize what is being thought.

Ultimately, narrative writing requires a certain amount of visualization on the part of the author since the written words – when used in fiction writing – usually evokes visual imagery in the minds of the readers. And the more accurate the synonyms, the more vivid the imagery.

Within the non-fiction context, synonym works well too. Consider the context of the General Paper (GP), an English “A” level paper within the Singapore context.

While marks are awarded for argument and content, writing style makes a drastic difference between coherence and confusion, and synonyms are the instrumental tools in ensuring the former.

Most writers are discouraged from using the same word repetitively as this implicitly indicates a weaker command of the language. And this is also the situation for GP writers. However, to vary the choice of words of similar meaning, a strong familiarity with synonyms is required.

Thus, a strong foundation of synonym is pivotal to preparing our students for all levels of education, especially at higher levels of education. I have seen many tertiary students fumble in their learning due to a lack of familiarity with synonyms.

It is time that synonyms be given the necessary and strong emphasis that they deserve.

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