Words that have similar meanings are called synonyms. English has a lot more synonyms than most languages because it has borrowed words from numerous languages throughout its history. Typically, languages avoid exact synonyms; if you already have a word for something, why borrow another one? So the words, even if they had very similar meanings, often take on slightly different nuances. Learning these subtle differences in meaning can make your writing more interesting, accurate, and rich.
In the 17th and 18th centuries, we borrowed words and word roots from Latin and Greek, as well as a great many words from French (which ultimately came from Latin since French is a Latinate language). Both then and now, these words of Latin and Greek origin are usually considered more prestigious, more academic. So you might choose a Latinate synonym over its native English (Germanic) counterpart in more formal, academic writing. Consider, for example, the following pairs of synonyms or, at least, close synonyms.
English/Germanic Latin/Greek origin
Look up the following words of Anglo-Saxon/English origin in a dictionary. Find a synonym whose origin is Latin. What are the differences in meaning?
begin Teacher notes: (originate, initiate)
break (disintegrate; invalidate)
eat (devour, consume)
frighten, scare (intimidate)
And now look up the following words of Latin origin in a dictionary. Find a synonym whose origin is Anglo-Saxon/English origin What are the differences in meaning?
shorten (abridge; abbreviate)
In general, words of Old English origin are more informal than those of French, Latin, or Greek origin. But in addition to formality, the meaning differences are often really subtle. For example, consider big and large, little and small. Big is used more frequently to suggest importance: big fish in a small sea, big man on campus, big deal, while large suggests abundance: living large, in large part. Little includes emotion or endearment: nice little dog, little sweetie. Small can convey lack of importance: small man, small matters. So it’s in these kinds of subtle ways, and in idiomatic expressions and sayings, that we can discover some of the very subtle meaning differences even between words that seem to have synonymous meanings.
key words: synonyms, formal/informal language, dictionaries, meaning
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.2g Consult reference materials, including beginning dictionaries, as needed to check and correct spellings.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L3.4d Use glossaries or beginning dictionaries, both print and digital, to determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5a Distinguish the literal and nonliteral meanings of words and phrases in context (e.g., take steps).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.3.5c Distinguish shades of meaning among related words that describe states of mind or degrees of certainty (e.g., knew, believed, suspected, heard, wondered).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.3c Differentiate between contexts that call for formal English (e.g., presenting ideas) and situations where informal discourse is appropriate (e.g., small-group discussion).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.4c Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5b Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.4.5c Demonstrate understanding of words by relating them to their opposites (antonyms) and to words with similar but not identical meanings (synonyms).
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.4c Consult reference materials (e.g., dictionaries, glossaries, thesauruses), both print and digital, to find the pronunciation and determine or clarify the precise meaning of key words and phrases.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5b Recognize and explain the meaning of common idioms, adages, and proverbs.
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.L.5.5c Use the relationship between particular words (e.g., synonyms, antonyms, homographs) to better understand each of the words.
Here is this lesson as a pdf.