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Compact Oxford Thesaurus for Students

Choosing the best synonym

Choosing the best synonym

It's important to understand the way your thesaurus arranges the synonyms it provides, as this can help you to choose the best alternative for the context you have in mind. This section offers some guidance on navigating your way through thesaurus entries so that you can make the most effective use of the information they contain.

How are the synonyms arranged?

Some thesauruses list their synonyms in a simple alphabetical order. Others arrange them according to their closeness in meaning to the main entry word so as to guide you to the most useful synonym quickly (as in the Compact Oxford Thesaurus for Students). If you are using a print thesaurus, it's always a good idea to read the introduction as this will give you detailed information about the structure of the entries.

The examples here are all taken from the Compact Oxford Thesaurus for Students and the guidelines are based on thesauruses which organize their information in a similar way (i.e. the synonyms which are closest in meaning to the entry word are placed at the front of the list)

The first synonym

The first synonym in any list is likely to be a good substitute for the main entry word in a variety of different contexts.

choose verb
1 we chose a quiet country hotel: select, pick, pick out, opt for, plump for, settle on, decide on, fix on; appoint, name, nominate, vote for.
2 I'll stay as long as I choose: wish, want, desire, feel/be inclined, please, like, see fit.

For example, in the entry for choose (above), the first synonym given is select. Given its position, the chances are that select will be a good replacement for choose in a sentence:
    We chose/selected a quiet country hotel.
    The party has chosen/selected a candidate for the presidential elections.
The entry at the end of a list of synonyms is usually less likely to be a good alternative in all situations or contexts. In this case vote for has a more restricted meaning and is best used when you are talking about making a formal or official choice.

  • If your thesaurus arranges its synonyms in order of their closeness in meaning to the main entry word, it's a good idea to focus on the first synonyms in the list.

  • Commas versus semi–colons

    Synonyms are usually separated by commas but some thesauruses also use semi–colons. If this is the case, you should be aware that a semi–colon means that the synonyms which follow it are different in some way from the ones that preceded it. Here's the entry for slender in the Compact Oxford Thesaurus for Students.

    slender adjective 1 her tall slender figure: slim, lean, willowy, sylphlike, svelte, lissom, graceful, slight; thin, skinny.
    2 the theory is based on very slender evidence: meagre, limited, slight, scanty, scant, sparse, paltry, insubstantial, insufficient, deficient, negligible.
    3 the chances of winning seemed slender: faint, remote, flimsy, fragile, slim; unlikely, improbable.
    OPPOSITES: plump, abundant.

    The first synonym given for sense 1 is slim. Slim is an adjective with positive associations, as is slender itself. If you describe someone as slim or slender, you are likely to create an attractive image in the reader's mind. The seven synonyms which follow slim in the list, all separated by commas, are also positive.

    But notice the semi–colon after slight. This signals that the next group of synonyms have a different shade of meaning from the preceding set. Thin and skinny tend to have rather negative associations, and you would create a different impression if you used either of these two adjectives instead of slim, willowy, svelte, lissom, and so on.

  • Whenever you choose a word from a list in a thesaurus, say the sentence in which you plan to use it to yourself to make sure that it conveys the impression you intended.
  • If in doubt, always double-check in a dictionary.

  • Semi-colons are also used in some thesauruses to divide groups of synonyms which are standard English from those which are not.

    Find out more about different types of English

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