Corpus Study of Synonymy in English

Term Paper, 2011

13 Pages, Grade: 2,0



1. Introduction

2. Comparison of synonymous words and sentences in English
2.1. Stylistic differences
2.2. Differences in connotation
2.3. Differences in affect
2.4. Difference in regional usage
2.5. Collocational differences
2.5.1 Differences in grammatical usage
2.5.2 Difference in logical semantic usage
2.6. Differences in general use
2.7. Differences in tone
2.8. Differences in frequency

3. Conclusion

4. Bibliography

1. Introduction

“Similarity of meaning is “the most important lexical relation” in the WordNet model (Miller and Fellbaum 1991: 202), and, in philosophy, Quine (1961: 22) has identified synonymy (along with analyticity) as “the primary business of the theory in meaning.””[1]

When writing a text about any topic, one does not want to use the same word every time. Imagine, the task is to write an article about young people. At first, they are called youth, but then the word adolescent is chosen. These two words are known to be synonyms, but it can be shown that words in English cannot have identical meaning and always are different in some way.

The question in this example is, whether youth and adolescent are fully interchangeable.

They are synonymous, because the OED, for example, defines synonyms as words that have the “same general sense[…]”, but they have “different shades of meaning or implications appropriate to different contexts[…]”.[2]

When thinking about the German erledigen, one finds a lot of words in English that should be considered in a translation, like to attend, to settle, to handle, to do, to finish, to dispatch etc.

Some of them are used in different situations or have the same core meaning, but differ in “[…]minor ways, or in emotional and stylistic connotation.”[3]

This seminar paper will focus on the analysis of synonymous words and sentences. Based on the notion that identity means “oneness”[4], it must be understood that a perfectly identical meaning can therefore not exist between two or more synonymous words or sentences.

This seminar paper does not aim to prove that words can have the same sense in some cases. It is rather based on the theory that they only have identical meaning, if it is similar in all contexts. This would be valid, if words like youth and adolescent differed only in form.[5] The objective is to show, by using the British National Corpus (BNC) and other thesauruses, what distinctions random synonyms such as these may have and why they cannot be easily interchanged.

2. Comparison of synonymous words and sentences in English

Synonymy (“syn ‘with, together’ + onym ‘name’ + y”[6] ) occurs very often in the English language. “The richness of synonyms in English is largely due to the happy mingling of Latin, French and native elements[…]”.[7] It is important to study them, because of their frequency of occurrence.

In the following sections, it will be shown what the semantic distinction between random similar words is.

2.1. Stylistic differences

The German word genügend can be expressed with the words enough and sufficient. The latter is called formal in the OED. Comparing both with the BNC, it demonstrates that there are 5.03 tokens of enough for every token of sufficient, which is a comparatively large number. The words are used in different registers, known as formal and informal English, so that it can be shown that they express a specific area of language. One simply has to remember which words to use in academic writing or other official registers, and that it is not possible to exchange words like sufficient and enough in a sentence, only because they are synonyms. It is known that formal words are mostly uncommon, because they are rarely used, which is the reason why there are only 0.19 tokens of sufficient for every token of enough in the BNC. The latter word can also be used in various senses, just like the word buy.

The OED states that there is a phrase in English: ‘you buy and sell your honour’. It would not be possible to change it into ‘purchase and sell your honour’, because these words cannot be used together in the described context. This aspect will be discussed later in the section dealing with collocations; for now, the example was to demonstrate that informal or common words are used in more ways than formal words. The informal word buy, for example, is also used more often in the context of acquiring something than purchase. The British National Corpus lists that there are 16 times as many cases of buy something as there are of purchase something. Buy and purchase can both be used in a sentence such as ‘We just have bought/purchased a fairly expensive house’[8], but “[…]there is a minor stylistic difference[…]”[9] and thus, we cannot speak about sentences with identical meaning.

Using distinctive registers changes the meaning. The words “[…]booze and spirits differ in formality, and this difference may communicate information about the situation (it is familiar or formal)[…], or information about the speaker’s social standing (demonstrating appropriate knowledge about the social situation or not).”[10]

Accordingly, it is important to develop a feeling for the most accepted style in the respective area. It must be considered that formal and informal language differ in a variety of ways such as structure, vocabulary, forms of address etc., hence, it cannot be said that words and sentences like those mentioned above are fully interchangeable and have identical meaning.

2.2. Differences in connotation

The additional meaning, called connotation, is often different between synonymous words in English. Most of the similar words have the same core meaning, or denotation, but nevertheless not an identical meaning.

Christian Mair[11] gives an example according to which the synonyms youths and youngsters have the same denotation, but the first expression has an additional positive and the second an additional negative connotation. This can be confirmed by consulting the British National Corpus: youngsters is employed more often, but in the context with attacked the word youths is more often used. Also, it states that it is more common to say ‘The youths were arrested’. Thus, it can be concluded, that youths is used, when one wants to say something negative about them. Another word that can be translated into the German Jugendlicher and called a synonym to youths and youngsters, is adolescent, which was used in the example at the beginning. The question is now, what additional connotation it has. Although youths, youngster, and adolescents all “refer to people of about the same age, only the latter word has the meaning of ‘immature’ in a phrase such as ‘He’s such an adolescent!’’[12] An informal expression of Jugendlicher would be teener (see in 2.1. Stylistic differences), which is also a synonym of adolescent. Yet another synonym is teenager, which can be called neutral, because it does not have any positive or negative connotation like youths and youngster, nor an additional meaning of immaturity like adolescent. The latter has a synonym with the same expression – juvenile. Both are used for a very childish young person, but even here one can determine, that they do not have identical meaning, because juvenile derives from Latin and is used in official linguistic registers, which leads to a very rare usage contrary to adolescent (see in 2.7. Differences in tone). The difference is not in connotation, but in another way.


[1] Murphy, M. Lynne (2003), Semantic Relations and the Lexicon. Antonymy, Synonymy, and Other Paradigms, Cambridge, p. 133

[2], February 16th, 2011.

[3], February 16th, 2011.

[4] See in Davidson, George (2002), Roget’s Thesaurus of English words and phrases, 150th ed., London, p. 7.

[5] Otherwise they would be the same word

[6] Minkova, Donka & Stockwell, Robert (2009), English Words. History and Structure, 2nd ed., Cambridge, p. 165.

[7] Baugh, Albert C. & Cable, Thomas (2002), A History of the English Language, 5th ed., London, p. 187.

[8] See in: Becker, Annette & Bieswanger, Markus (2008), Introduction to English Linguistics, 2nd ed., Tübingen, p. 152.

[9] Annette & Bieswanger, Markus (2008), Introduction to English Linguistics, 2nd ed., Tübingen, p. 152.

[10] Murphy, M. Lynne (2003), Semantic Relations and the Lexicon. Antonymy, Synonymy, and Other Paradigms, Cambridge, p. 155.

[11] Mair, Christian (2008), English Linguistics. An Introduction, Tübingen, p.95.

[12] Minkova, Donka & Stockwell, Robert (2009), English Words. History and Structure, 2nd ed., Cambridge, p.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


Corpus Study of Synonymy in English
University of Rostock  (Institut für Anglistik/Amerikanistik)
English Lexicology
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ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
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Synonymy, English, Synonyms, Lexicology
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MA Daniel Schroeder (Author), 2011, Corpus Study of Synonymy in English, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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