Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

A Grave Case of Synonym-itis

Some writers go to great lengths to find synonyms for things or acts that they have to refer to repeatedly in a story. They seem to have the idea that this adds flavor and depth and style to their writing. Actually, it can add a thick layer of B.S. and to demonstrate quite clearly why supposed synonyms are not necessarily fungible.

Newspaper writers have an especially bad reputation for this. Every fall newspapers are littered with references to "orange gourds" because the authors think there's something wrong with saying pumpkin more than once. Articles on dining will have the oddest things being "munched": Pancakes? Spaghetti?

But recently I encountered a really particularly bad case of this lexical disfigurement.  Bob Greene, CNN Correspondent, bestselling author of 25 books, who therefore really ought to know better, has presented a piece called "Why 'Hail to the Chief' remains unsung" that in other respects is not terrible (it's not great; its central point is rather questionable) but in its use of synonyms for sing is in a grave condition indeed.

He's talking about politicians singing together at the presidential inauguration. It doesn't start out so badly. He first says they "blend their voices for certain time-honored lyrics." OK, fine.  He then comes to "Hail to the Chief," which is normally played by a brass band and not sung, even though it has a rather good set of words (his thesis is that because the words speak of unity in approval of the presidential choice, opposing politicians wouldn't want to sing it). He manages a reasonable, not inaccurate "it would be unrealistic to assume that members of the party out of power would want to enthusiastically belt them out." Sure, "belting out" the lyrics to that song — easy to picture. And after that his next synonym is "ardently vocalize," which at least presents the same picture.

So try to reconcile that with his next synonym: "they possess the potential for some pretty awkward moments of public crooning."

"Public crooning"?! What?! Crooning is a style of singing. It is a style very unlike what he has just described, very unlike what you would expect at the occasion, and really quite unlike what you would probably expect from any group of assembled people singing patriotic songs.

His next inelegant variation is "Try to picture, during the administration of George W. Bush, the trio of Harry Reid, Nancy Pelosi and then-Sen. Barack Obama raising their voices in song to warble in Bush's direction..." Warble? Um, OK, if you have to. But really? You don't have to.

And in the next paragraph it's "the sight and sound of Newt Gingrich, Bob Dole and Trent Lott harmonizing..." Leaving aside the question of whether you see them harmonizing, I think it honestly unlikely that you would hear them harmonizing; dollars to doughnuts they would all be singing the same melody line.

OK, OK, you don't just want to say "sing" over and over and over. Fine. Your central thesis is a little weak and you feel you need to reinforce the point with repeated imagery. And the English language is rich with different ways to say more or less the same thing. But try to stick with the more, not the less, OK? And maybe ask yourself, next time you talk about people "crooning" a loud song (or "murmuring" a military order, which I've also seen), whether you aren't trying to get your thesaurus to do work your thesis should be doing.

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James Harbeck is an editor by day, a designer by night, and a writer by Jove! His love of wine tasting crossed with his love of language to spawn word tasting notes, which appear daily at his blog, Sesquiotica. Buy his just-released book of salacious verse on English usage, Songs of Love and Grammar, on Lulu.com. Click here to read more articles by James Harbeck.