Synonyms: How to Tell the Difference

Synonyms are a blessing and a curse for language learners. Synonyms are a blessing because they help speakers to avoid repetitive words and to articulate ideas more precisely and elegantly. However, when a speaker is not very competent and confident, synonyms become a curse. How can a language learner know the difference between two words that mean the same thing? How do you know when to choose one word, and when to choose the other? Can they be used interchangeably, or does each word have a specific niche and belong to a certain context? These are the questions that drive language learners crazy as soon as their vocabulary grows beyond basics. So, if these questions bother you, congratulations: it’s a true sign that you’ve advanced your vocabulary.

The Merriam-Webster dictionary defines a synonym as “one of two or more words or expressions of the same language that have the same or nearly the same meaning in some or all senses.” This definition reveals the main problems that language learners face when dealing with synonyms. What does “nearly the same” mean, exactly? How many “senses” does a word have? How can you tell what is the right “sense” or context to use each of the synonyms? I will try to answer those questions in this article, and I will share a few practical tips on how to make synonyms your friends.

Why Do Languages Need Two Words with the Same Meaning?

Language doesn’t allow redundancies. That was one of the very first things I learned as a student in the linguistic department at my university. If more than one word for something exists, there should be reasons for that. Exact synonyms, wherein the words have the same meaning in all senses, are extremely rare in all languages. The usual examples of exact synonyms in Russian textbooks are крокодил (crocodile) and аллигатор (alligator), бегемот (hippopotamus), and гиппопотам (also hippopotamus). And even these exemplary synonyms are not exactly identical for the experts.

So, most of the synonyms are somehow different. Otherwise, they wouldn’t exist. But what are these differences?

Differences in Meaning

Synonyms may have slight differences in meaning. For example, the words современный and нынешний are partial synonyms. Современный means 1) contemporary 2) modern 3) up-to-date, present-day. Нынешний means 1) of present day, today’s 2) modern. As you can see, both refer to something modern, happening nowadays, and in many contexts, they could be used interchangeably. However, современный has the positive “up-to-date, up to the modern standards” meaning, while нынешний does not. Also, нынешний refers to “today, now,” while современный may refer to the time that is “contemporary” to the subject of the speech, for example, “современные Достоевскому социалисты” (socialists of Dostoevsky’s time). Simple comparison of definitions in the dictionary may help you find the differences in a pair of word’s meaning and usage.

Differences in Style

Synonyms can be different in style. Most words are stylistically neutral and can be used in any environment. However, some words belong to specific social niches – academic language, professional lingo, slang, colloquialisms, formal language, and so on. Sometimes synonyms mean exactly the same thing, but one word circulates in formal speeches, while the other belongs to streets. For example, the word понимать (to understand, to comprehend) is stylistically neutral, and its synonyms петрить, кумекать, врубаться are colloquialisms.

The difference between смелый and отважный is not in their meaning, as they both mean “brave, courageous”. Смелый is a neutral word, while отважный belongs to the high style that would be appropriate in a formal, ceremonial speech. If somebody combines unusual colors in their dress, you can say it is a смелое сочетание, “bold combination.” However, it would sound very funny if you called it отважное сочетание, which could be translated (more or less) as “desperate combination,” with a good pinch of sarcasm.

Style borders are not impenetrable. Modern Russian officials and public figures freely use words that were unacceptable in formal speech forty years ago. Conversely, formal words find their way into everyday conversation without creating a comical effect. These processes are unstoppable, but stylistically different synonyms still exist in Russian.

Differences in Connotations

Just like people, each word in the language has its own history and background. You may encounter words and phrases that have the same meaning, but one is neutral while the other has positive or negative connotations. For example, уверенный в себе means self-confident, and it is a good thing. Самоуверенный, on the other hand, also means self-confident, but in a bad sense – cocky, self-righteous, opinionated. Убийца (murderer) and киллер (hitman) mean basically the same thing, but убийца is a very negative word, while киллер is a neutral, “just doing one’s job” sort of word.

The word космополит means cosmopolitan, cosmopolite. The word itself is neither good nor bad. However, during Stalin’s purges, the phrase безродный космополит was used in the anti-Semitic campaigns. So, while it was originally neutral, it became associated with strong anti-Semitism. No wonder many writers prefer to use descriptive definitions for people who are at ease in any part of the world or use phrases such as гражданин мира instead.

Different Valences

You might remember the term “valence” from your chemistry classes. Each atom has the combining capacity, and it is called “valence.” Words, too, have different combining capacities. Synonyms often have different valences, and they can be combined with different sets of words. For example, улыбка, smile, is very close to усмешка, grin, but because усмешка has slight negative connotations, you can say “подарить улыбку”, to give a smile to somebody, yet “подарить усмешку” sounds weird and would take a very specific context (irony, sarcasm).

How to Pick the Right Synonym

When you have a choice between a few words that mean the same and you are not sure which one to pick, start by checking their definitions. I said “definitions” because I would recommend using explanatory Russian-Russian dictionaries rather than Russian-English or Russian-Spanish dictionaries. For a quick check, I recommend Russian Wiktionary (Викисловарь), where you can find definitions, etymology, and all possible grammatical forms (cases, conjugations, etc.) for each word.

Using a monolingual dictionary is more difficult than simply looking up the translation, but the translation may be confusing or not accurate enough. For example, Russian words моряк and матрос are both translated into English as “sailor, seaman.” Russian Wiktionaly explains that матрос is a general crew sailor who has no rank in the navy hierarchy. Моряк, on the other hand, is a broad term for a seaman. You can call a captain “моряк,” but not “матрос.

Russian monolingual dictionaries usually have notations on styles. If it offers no notation before the definition, it’s just a regular, neutral word. If you see книжн (книжное), it means the word is bookish. The notation устар (устаревшее) means obsolete, outdated; разг (разговорное) is for colloquial, etc.

Also, Russian Wiktionary lists antonyms for most of the words. Antonyms are the words with the opposite meaning. Обычный and нормальный both mean “usual, ordinary.” However, if you check their antonyms, you’ll see that the opposite for обычный is необычный, экстраординарный (unusual, extraordinary), while the opposite for нормальный is ненормальный (abnormal, crazy, psycho). By checking the opposite words, you get a better understanding of the meaning of a word.

For the contextual references and for checking if the word in question can be combined with other words in the sentence, I recommend Reverso Context, a contextual dictionary that uses the power of AI and millions of bilingual texts. You search a word or a phrase, and Reverso Context shows you dozens of sentences containing that word or phrase and their translations in your target language. I love playing with Reverso Context, and I use it much more often than a dictionary because no word is an island – everything is contextual.

If you feel confident enough to work with Russian texts without any translation at all, Ruscorpora, the National Russian Corpus, may help you to learn about word usage. Enter a word into a search field, and the search engine will find as many sentences with the word as it has in its database, which means millions and millions of pages of books, newspapers, magazines, internet-forums, blogs, and such – all in Russian. Each entrance has the description, source, and date, so you can figure out if it is contemporary slang, formal speech of an official, or classic literature.

You may be wondering now why you should conduct a mini-research project and explore dozens of authentic texts for word usage samples when you simply want to know the difference between two words. Of course, you can totally rely on your bilingual dictionary. There’s nothing wrong with bilingual dictionaries. You can rely on your intuition and hope that native speakers understand you somehow, even if your phrase is not perfect. But, let’s be frank: language learners are very bad at picking the right synonyms intuitively.

One of my acquaintances, a Russian expat, told me how his English-speaking granddaughter asked him, “Grampa, why do you always pick the worst word out of all possible options?” I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced mild embarrassment because I chose the wrong words, and how many embarrassing moments I saved by simply learning about synonyms and exploring their context. If you spare a few minutes to take a deeper look at a pair of synonyms, you’ll be rewarded later big time!