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.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday January 30th 2013, 5:37 AM
Comment by: Mohammed S. (shorewood, WI)
OK James!!!
The very last word of the first paragraph of your article is "fungible". Despite claiming to have a robust lexicographic prowess, I had to look it up. You could have used "flexible" or "interchangeable". You do not practice what you preach. The beauty of English language is in its vast and tantalizingly naughty vocabulary. I rather read about crooning, warble, harmonizing etc. All of these words were easily understood when I read the original article by CNN's Bob Greene if not literally but in a general context.------And yours "fungible"----I had to look it up.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 6:10 AM
Comment by: William D. (Fruitland, MD)
Three random politicians do not necessarily harmonize. I am keeping my personal journal (blog) and use a thesaurus only because my vocabulary isn't so great. But I try use different words as a part of their more true meaning and to detect words used out of context. Anyhow, I don't try to use ten-dollar words either. This article does remind everyone not to toss just some word around that hasn't been seen in a decade. :)
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 8:14 AM
Comment by: RACHEL J. (URBANA, IL)
I took the use of "fungible" in this article as a deliberate demonstration of the author's point. However, I do not admire the article's premise and am surprised by its appearance here, of all places. We all should strive to make full use of our language! Certainly the use of strained, inappropriate, or self-conscious synonyms is irritating and unprofessional, but the article in question was not a very good example of such offenses. Furthermore, two of those those last three politicians are from a very conservative religious background and definitely could have been harmonizing - in fact, I think Lott does sing.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 8:15 AM
Comment by: Robert D. (Kennesaw, GA)
Glad, happy, or delighted (take your pick) I am not the only one who had to look up fungible. Now all I need do is find a way to use it three times this week in conversation. Or was our author showing us the folly of using words best left unused?
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 8:39 AM
Comment by: Kate M. (Tucson, AZ)
Having to look up a word to discover what it means is a pleasure; new snow in the soul. It is odd to find anyone subscribing to this site complaining about having to do so. WTF?

Fungible is one of the great words of all time, right up there with concatenate and wiretap.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 8:42 AM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
Fungible? I looked it up also. I am using simple words, that may be too, what shall I say, fancy or fun. I will just say as I would have in fourth grade when my vocabulary was small, it is fun to see how a person can stretch your imagination in an article and make you laugh or smile. I think it is creative and stretches our imaginations. Just think about it. Nothing personal as I do enjoy your columns.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 9:54 AM
Comment by: david P. (Houston, TX)
Yet for the author's point, I think landing on a somewhat obscure word was effective. I recently read a point I thought was insightful: "using an oblique reference can sometimes be used to cause the hearer/reader to more readily reflect the point." On another note, the last sentence of the article which ends in, "... 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." - because of the parenthetic clause and then the comma, when I returned to finish the last of the sentence, I had to reread it more than once when picking up the flow of the sentence, to get the point the last clause was making. Therefore I have a suggestion: add the word "that" [near the end] so the sentence would end like this: "whether you aren't trying to get your thesaurus to do work that your thesis should be doing." Anyone agree/disagree?
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 10:11 AM
Comment by: William D. (Fruitland, MD)
Davids point was clear, and was a similar warning from a college professor.
If the people were singing - say they were singing and don't make dubious asseveration's.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 10:11 AM
Comment by: James H. (Toronto Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hi! Re: "fungible": the truth is, I didn't think my readers would be unfamiliar with it. I guess I was wrong! I blogged about it a while ago (on my blog, not published here) – you may find the little vignette I used entertaining, enlightening, or irritating: http://sesquiotic.wordpress.com/fungible-fungi/ . At any rate, I did not use it as part of a set of different quasi-synonyms for "interchangeable," so I think I'm off the hook on the question of practicing what I preach.

As to the parenthetic at the end, you're right, I could have written that better. Actually, I could have just left the parenthesis out.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 10:29 AM
Comment by: Daniel B. (Bozeman, MT)
I am puzzled that Kate M. elevates wiretap to the same level of greatness as fungible and concatenate. Am I missing the obvious?
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 12:18 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
@Kate M.: I think the complaints about having to look up "fungible" stem mostly from a slightly mis-directed idea that the author's use of a less-than-ordinary word was an example of his transgressing in the way that he was criticizing. (Which isn't the case--not the same things at all.)

@Daniel B.: And I think that Kate's collection of "great words of all time" is probably a example of personal delight. I keep a list of "Words, Great and Useful" that I'm quite sure others would find puzzling, but these are words that make me smile at their sound, or whose etymology is fascinating, or that I suspect one day will keep me from saying "What I SHOULD have said was..."
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 12:19 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
Oh, and also: I actually didn't think that this article made its case. The examples given (with perhaps the exception of "warble," a word I find extremely undignified and giggly in that context) didn't seem outlandish to me.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 2:31 PM
Comment by: Becky C.
I loved the article and the sense that it made. And I agree that sometimes one has a tendency to use the thesaurus instead of the mind in choosing a word. After all the thesaurus is only a tool, the mind should take into consideration the context and meaning of the piece.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 3:55 PM
Comment by: Orin Hargraves (CO)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
"Fungible" did a star-turn on the front page of the VT about six months ago, here:


Also of interest is H.W. Fowler's article on Elegant Variation. Things have not changed much since he wrote about it in the early 20th century:

Wednesday January 30th 2013, 3:58 PM
Comment by: Karen F. (New Castle, PA)
Just a footnote...I was not complaining having to look up fungible. And I was pretty sure I knew what it meant. It was a "tongue in cheek" comment, as was the enitire comment. Just a joke than no one got. I do however love it when writers use what one might think "unusual" phrases. I like the thinking out of the box. I also have word lists that I love and refer to when I need.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 6:45 PM
Comment by: Shannon D. (Philadelphia, PA)
Mohammed is wrong (and lazy) to complain about having to look up the word fungible. But it turns out he's right on the larger point. It's actually NOT a good use of the word and "interchangeable" would have been a better choice.

Fungible has a precise meaning that does not apply here. Allow me to illustrate. A registered nurse is chatting with a physical therapist who specializes in helping amputees to learn to walk again with artificial limbs. They're both concerned about lay-offs and the nurse makes the point that he has more to worry about. "I'm fungible, but you're not," the nurse says. "There's only one of you, but the hospital employs hundreds of people with the exact same degrees and skills I have. They could try to run this place with just 50 nurses, but they'll always need you."

Here, in this article, we're concerned with synonyms. Unlike the aforementioned nurses, synonyms are distinct words that have similar meanings and overlapping chores, but do not perform the exact same work. The better word for making the author's point here was interchangeable.

I have one more complaint to lodge. In the third paragraph, the author reports that he encountered "a really particularly bad case" of the phenomenon he's describing. If I had edited this, I would have taken out the word "really." It's a synonym for particularly and here it's just jarringly redundant. Sure, in speech one might say really twice for emphasis, but this felt awkward to my ear.
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 10:39 PM
Comment by: James H. (Toronto Canada)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Here are a couple of dictionaries' takes on "fungible," and you can decide for yourselves whether I am right in extending it from the usual use in reference to goods:

Dictionary.com: "being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind"

OED, quoting from J. Austin: "When a thing which is the subject of an obligation..must be delivered in specie, the thing is not fungible, i.e. that very thing, and not another thing of the same or another class in lieu of it must be delivered. Where the subject of the obligation is a thing of a given class, the thing is said to be fungible, i.e. the delivery of any object which answers to the generic description will satisfy the terms of the obligation."

If you have a bag of marbles of equal size but different appearance and you need one for pelting someone with, they are fungible. If you need one for trading, they may not be, depending on the marble collection and tastes of the person you're trading with.

"Really particularly" probably would be better edited to just "particularly," true, though "really particularly" does mean something different from either just "really" or just "particularly"; after all, "particularly" emphasizes a sense of specificity, not simply of intensity, and the added "really" intensifies that -- the effect is not the same as "really notably" and even less so as "really generally."

Actually, my favourite example of why synonyms are not functionally equivalent is the difference between "butt dial" and "booty call."
Wednesday January 30th 2013, 11:04 PM
Comment by: Sue B.
James H., now THAT explanation (about functional non-equivalence of synonyms) is one that will stick in the mind! :D
Thursday January 31st 2013, 11:40 AM
Comment by: Hong C. (Northfield, IL)
I have to check with google to find out :D is happy; But it gave me more 30 of the signs I do not know.

Equivalence is contextual and could be equivalent up to isomorphism.

Other terms relating to 'happy':
Evil but happy
Hate (opposite of <3)
Happy, arms in the air
Very happy
Happy with a moustache
Be Happy
Bloody He

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