Hi Leo, I wonder whether you can help me. Do you know any place on the web where I can compare the meanings of near synonyms? I've used the concordance type sites which give me lots of collocations, but that isn't what I want. It doesn't help my pupils to give them 10 collocations for each word (e.g. regular, usual, routine) some of which are identical. I need to be able to put my finger on a general rule(s) like, one is for people and the other is for abstract ideas (I know this example is irrelevant to those particular words) Thanks for any help you can provide. Renee Wahl
First of all, it's great to know that you use concordance software. I wouldn't give pupils 10 collocations for each word as it is a bit overwhelming. In the early stages I would give them 3-4 common collocates and/or examples for each noun. I know it's generally difficult to put a finger on them but unfortunately with many near-synonyms the difference is purely collocational.
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For usual I would provide the following examples on the board:
It's ____er than usual
(October is warmer than usual this year)
As usual, he arrived late.
If you always meet your friend at the same you can say "let's meet at the usual time"
Intuitively, I thought usual is the most common of the three but according to this tool www.wordcount.org
on a regular basis
at regular intervals
You also need regular exercise to stay healthy and fit
I am sure the students would also be familiar with the term regular verbs :)
(These examples are from the Longman Dictionary)
It's difficult to extrapolate a rule here but perhaps you can point out that we use regular when we talk about something that you do every week / every month - it has to do with time intervals.
I know students like the safety of cut-and-dried rules but unfortunately knowing the difference between near-synonyms is often simply knowing what goes with what. Likewise, in Hebrew there are also words that may seem identical to English speakers, for example different Hebrew words for picking fruit/vegetables. Ask learners to imagine they had to explain the difference to an English speaker and why one goes with olives and another verb with oranges. They'd be stuck. They would find that the difference between them is not their denotational meaning but rather how they are used, i.e what they go (=collocate) with. Does it help in any way?
Do you think my answer was helpful?
My article Lexical Density in English in Modern English Teacher 2012, vol 21(1) addresses the issue of synonymy in more detail.
For more concordance tools and online dictionaries see Essential Lexical Tools on this blog.
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