Writers needing to repeat a word often prefer to use a synonym instead; inexperienced readers can fail to see how the synonym repeats the original.
HOW A MEANING CAN BE REPEATED BY A SYNONYM
Word meanings are often repeated in different parts of a text, usually to help link it together (see 24. Good and Bad Repetition). This is not the same as putting similar-meaning words next to each other in order to explain or teach the meaning of one of them (see 77. Apposition). The repetition can be with the same word or with a different one of similar meaning – a synonym like lone for solitary, reply for response or propose for suggest. Pairs like this do not ordinarily mean exactly the same thing (see 16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words), but they do when placed near each other in a text.
Writers more often use a different word to repeat a meaning than the same word as before. The probable reason is a belief that this is better writing style. It is a belief that has recently been encouraged by computer word processors offering to “highlight repeated words” (the computers are not always right – see 24. Good and Bad Repetition and 68. How Computers get Grammar Wrong – but they mostly are). It has led to some very commonly-expressed meanings having a very wide range of synonyms in English (for an example, see 115. Surveying Numerical Data).
Here is an example of how a word’s meaning in a text can be repeated later on with a synonym:
(a) Success requires hard work. Yet effort by itself is insufficient.
Although the words hard work and effort might elsewhere mean slightly different things, they here have exactly the same meaning. Sometimes the chosen synonym is a word that normally has a more general meaning than the first-used one, as in this example:
(b) A car was observed leaving the scene of the crime. The vehicle was chased by a member of the public.
Normally, car and vehicle would not be considered synonyms, any more than lion and animal are. However, when they are put together like this in a text (with the more general word second), they come to mean the same.
A more familiar type of repetition with a different word is with a pronoun. In sentence (a), effort could be replaced by this, while in (b) vehicle could be expressed by it. However, repetition with pronouns is less of a problem for readers, and will not feature in the rest of this discussion. More can be read about pronouns under 28. Pronoun Errors.
READING DIFFICULTIES CAUSED BY REPETITION WITH SYNONYMS
Writers’ efforts to avoid repeating particular words give a major reading problem to unskilled academic and professional readers: they often fail to recognize a shared meaning of neighbouring words. When both of the words are familiar, this failure can prevent the understanding of vital meaning links. When one of the words is unfamiliar, it can also hinder the guessing of that word’s meaning (see 177. How to Guess Meanings in a Text).
The difficulty caused by repetition with synonyms seems, in fact, to be one of the most common reading problems of all. One reason why I say this is that quite a high proportion of reading difficulties reported to me by readers themselves (as described in the article I have posted entitled What can learners tell us about their reading problems?) have turned out to involve “same idea in different words”. Secondly, reading comprehension questions focussing on repetition with synonyms are, in my experience, rarely answered well by English learners.
Below is a task involving numerous examples of repetition with a synonym. All of them have proved problematic for at least some learners. They are presented partly as evidence of the importance of the problem, and partly as an exercise to improve reading skill. Readers are invited to give it a try.
PRACTICE EXERCISE: SYNONYM-RECOGNITION
In the following texts, find as many different examples as you can of a synonym repeating an earlier idea. Answers are provided afterwards.
A. Animal safaris are considered a very glamorous type of holiday outside Africa. Do you think that the image of wildlife observation is justified?
B. In the ancient world, books had to be copied painstakingly by hand, usually by professional scribes skilled in the art.
C. The speed with which countries have accomplished an industrial revolution varies, and there is debate as to the exact chronology of events in particular instances.
D. Marx’s theory of unemployment is not borne out by what happened in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s. Marx’s analysis depended on the standard of living remaining in the long run at subsistence level. In reality, however, America’s real income per head in 1932, the worst year of the Great Depression, was more than double what it had been in 1860.
E. Gap-filling tests are particularly suitable for evaluating memorization. However, too much reliance on this type of approach leads to over-emphasis of this ability. Although rote-learning is essential in most subject areas, it is only one ability and must not be emphasised to the neglect of other, more complex abilities.
In each case, underlined words with the same numbers are being used as synonyms of each other.
A. Animal safaris (1) are considered a very glamorous (2) type of holiday outside Africa. Do you think that the image (2) of wildlife observation (1) is justified?
B. In the ancient world, books had to be copied painstakingly by hand (1), usually by professional scribes skilled in the art (1). Note the importance here of correctly understanding the art. It has the countable meaning of art (= a technique) rather than the uncountable one (= painting, sculpture, design etc). This variability places art in the category considered in depth in the Guinlist post 43. Noun Countability Clues 4. The use of the with the countable form shows it to be repeating the previously-mentioned technique of copying. The would not be possible with the uncountable form because in this context that form would not be repeating anything and thus could only have a general meaning – a meaning that uncountable nouns cannot express with the (see 110. Nouns without “the” or “a”).
C. There is some variation in the speed with which countries have accomplished an industrial revolution (1), and debate exists as to the exact chronology of events in particular instances (1).
D. Marx’s theory (1) of unemployment is not supported by what happened in the USA in the 1920s and 1930s. Marx’s analysis (1) required the standard of living (2) to remain in the long run at subsistence level. In reality, however, America’s real income per head (2) in 1932, which was the worst year of the Great Depression, was more than double what it had been in 1860.
E. Gap-filling tests (1) are especially useful for evaluating memorization (2). However, too much reliance on this type of approach (1) leads to over-emphasis of this ability (2). Although most subjects require a certain amount of rote-learning (2), it is only one ability and must not be emphasised to the neglect of other, more complex abilities.