16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words



Knowing some general types of small difference between words can help particular word pairs to be distinguished more easily



A common problem in learning any foreign language is pairs of words with such similar meanings that the difference between them is hard to see. A number of other posts within this blog attempt to explain pairs like this (see, for example, 44. Troublesome Prepositional Verbs,  61. “Since” versus “Because” and various posts entitled Tricky Word Contrasts). Here, however, I want to concentrate on types of difference, as I believe that knowing some of the most important ones can make it easier to distinguish between many confusingly similar words.

Each of the following pairs illustrates a different type of meaning difference. They do not cover all of the possibilities, but they are quite commonly found. Before reading the explanations below, readers are invited to decide for themselves what each type of difference is.











1. Words of Different Register

This is the type of difference shown by the first two words in the list above. Registers are different ways of using language according to purposes and contexts. Examples of purposes/contexts that give rise to definite registers are formal academic writing, everyday conversations, newspaper reports, and legal documents. The way of using English in each of these – their registers – can be identified through both vocabulary and grammar that are more common in them than in English as a whole.

The register of academic writing is particularly discussed within this blog in the posts 46. How to Avoid “I”, “We” and “You” and 108. Formal and Informal Words. Examples of non-academic, conversational English words are get, big and a lot. A word found mostly in newspapers is poll meaning “election”, while one typical of legal documents is party meaning “a person who signs an agreement”. The register of remuneration above is legal or business English, while pay is more characteristic of conversation or newspaper writing. For more examples, see 166. Appropriacy in Professional English.


2. Words of Different Connotation

The second type of word difference illustrated above (reckless/daring) is one of connotation.  This is a kind of addition to the main meaning of a word, indicating how it should be judged. The main possibilities are positively (suggesting that the idea behind the word is a good thing), negatively, or neutrally (without any indication). The word reckless has a negative connotation (indicated by the -less ending – see 106. Word-Like Suffixes), suggesting criticism of whoever or whatever is so labelled, while daring is positive, suggesting approval.

For further examples of positive and/or negative words, see 13. Hidden Negatives,  146. Some Important Prefix Types,  152. Agreeing and Disagreeing in Formal Contexts and 166. Appropriacy in Professional English.

Quite often, the same idea will be viewed positively by one person and negatively by another, so that they will express it with words of different connotation. This is the case, for example, when TV companies refer to advertisements during a programme as breaks (positive) while viewers might refer to them negatively as interruptions.


3. Words of Different Strength

The next pair above (important/essential) have different strengths of meaning.  The word essential means very important.  Because the idea of “very” is already present in the meaning of essential, users of English are often advised to avoid saying *very essential ( see 98. “Very”, “Much” and “Very Much”). Other pairs like this (the stronger one being the second) are dirty/filthy, frightened/terrified, happy/ecstatic, large/huge and bright/brilliant.


4. Words of Different Generality

With the pair walk/stride we have a very common type of meaning difference, but one that is often quite hard to spot: generality.  Walking is more general than striding; striding is one of many ways of walking. We can prove this by checking that all striding is walking but not all walking is striding. In the same way, vehicle is more general than car and below is more general than under. See also graph/graphic and behave/behave oneself in the post 114. Tricky Word Contrasts 3.


5. Words with Different Collocations

Words that differ in collocation may have no meaning difference at all, but simply accompany different partner words. The word great in the list above typically partners the abstract nouns importance, difficulty and deal, while large would be preferred with number and payment (see 108. Formal & Informal Words). The difference between make and do is also often one of collocation: we make a decision, for example, but do research (see 173. “Do Research” or “Make Research”?).

Collocation features heavily within these pages in such other posts as 111. Words with a Typical Preposition116. Rarer Uses of HAVE,  141. Ways of Using MAKE and 164. Fixed Preposition Phrases.


6. Words that Take Different Types of Subject/Object

The verbs install/instil both mean “establish” or “place”, but they seem to differ in what they establish.  We install physical things, especially machinery, and we instil mental ideas, such as attitudes and beliefs. The difference can be called one of subject/object type: machinery and ideas are different types of object of similar verbs. A similar difference may distinguish take place and exist: for an explanation see 132. Tricky Word Contrasts 4 (item #1).

This kind of difference might also explain well-known problem pairs like borrow/lend, rob/steal and bring/take. They all have a shared meaning (particular transference types), but in the first pair the subjects are different (receiver versus giver), while in the second and third the objects are (loser versus lost goods; distant versus nearby object). 


7. Words with Different Geographical Associations

The difference between cookie and biscuit is one of geography: American and British English respectively. This category is like a subcategory of register, but it may be better to separate it because so many important differences are covered by it. American/British is not the only contrast possibility. In East Africa, for example, more so is often used instead of British/American moreover.  More about regional variations can be read within this blog in the article entitled Should East African university students try to change the way they speak English?.


8. Words with Different Grammatical Uses

Sometimes there is no meaning difference between different expressions because it is their grammatical form and/or use that is the difference. This seems to be the case with easily and with ease. The obvious difference is that easily is an adverb while with ease is a preposition phrase. However, knowing that does not make it clear when one should be used rather than the other.

The difference of use seems to be that adverbs are more common next to the verb in their sentence while preposition phrases more commonly go at the end. Hence we might say Trained athletes can easily run 10 km but Trained athletes can run 10 km with ease. More about pairs like this is in the post 85. Preposition Phrases & Corresponding Adverbs. Further examples of words distinguished more by grammar than meaning are but/however (see 40. Conjunctions versus Connectors), help/facilitate and amount/number (see 81. Tricky Word Contrasts 2).



To further illustrate the above categories, here is an exercise where you have to match each one with a pair of similar words. Answers are given below.




1.  SAY = Speak/Write (words); TELL = Speak to/write to (someone)

2.  GLARING = Shining so strongly that onlookers feel discomfort; BRILLIANT = Shining so strongly that onlookers are impressed.

3.  ALTHOUGH = notwithstanding the fact that (+ statement); DESPITE = notwithstanding (+ noun phrase)

4. PASTOR = Religious minister in charge of a parish in the USA; PARISH PRIEST = Religious minister in charge of a parish in the UK or Ireland.

5.  STRENUOUS = Forceful (used to describe exercise or a denial); FERVENT = Forceful (used to describe hope).

6.  MATTER = Scientific name for material of which something is composed; STUFF = Informal name for material of which something is composed.

7.  IMMORAL = Breaking ethical or religious rules that make society work better; WICKED = Breaking ethical or religious rules that prevent terrible suffering.

8.  HONEST = Always avoiding untruths; VIRTUOUS = Always avoiding immoral behaviour.


Answers:  1 = Subject/Object Type (SAY + words; TELL + person); 2 = Connotation;  3 = Grammatical Use (conjunction/preposition);  4 Geography;  5 = Collocation;  6 = Register;  7 = Strength of Meaning;  8 = Generality.


3 thoughts on “16. Ways of Distinguishing Similar Words

  1. On post 16, i have two questions one being whether there cannot be words that have a similar meaning and the other being that i guess these words association/interaction
    are different but i have failed to identify their type of difference.

    • Thanks for your questions.Regarding the first, most linguists would say that true synonyms don’t exist: there is always some difference, however small, between two apparently interchangeable words. As for the second question, I think the main difference is that association means being linked with somebody or something, without necessarily communicating with them. Interaction, on the other hand, is all about saying things to another person and receiving a response from them – what you and I are doing here. The type of difference is not any one of the special types discussed in Post 16; it’s just an ordinary subtle meaning difference. Best wishes.

  2. Thank you Mr FANNING about the colons and semi-colons.me i have failed to distinguish btn colons, semi-colons and full stops. And when to be applied.

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