Word Count

Writers Talk About Writing

Unequal Rights: All Synonyms are Not the Same

We welcome back Merrill Perlman, who writes the "Language Corner" column for Columbia Journalism Review. Here she explains why journalists should appreciate the special connotations of seemingly synonymous words.

Strunk and White's Elements of Style counsels to avoid euphemism, and, as we wrote on the book's fiftieth anniversary, some journalists seem particularly fond of calling a dog a "canine" or a banana "an elongated yellow fruit."

But the caution in E of S is about using "a twenty-dollar word when there is a ten-center handy, ready and able," cuts both ways, as using a ten-cent word to describe a twenty-dollar concept can mislead readers just as much.

Say the word "eatery," for example. What's the image that jumps to mind? A restaurant, sure, but what kind? Is it a diner with linoleum counters and vinyl booths? Is it McDonald's? Is it a restaurant with white tablecloths and a hushed air? For many people, the first or second is more likely to be associated with "eatery" than the third. Yet here is the New York Post, writing that the Palestinian delegation to the United Nations dined at a "swank eatery on West Broadway in TriBeCa." Those two words clash, even in a tabloid.

If you say you're going to see a "film," many people would envision art houses, Fellini or independent productions. A "movie," though, is more like Contagion, than Caligula. This is not to say that you can't call Contagion a "film" or Caligula a movie, but that your context, tone and audience should guide you.

Some journalists attend "press conferences" while others attend "news conferences." Is there a difference? A subtle one, perhaps. The senator summoning reporters on a slow news day to release information that could have been released almost any time sounds more like a "press conference"; the briefing by the police chief on the missing child is more like a "news conference." The Associated Press Stylebook says to use "news conference"; The New York Times Manual of Style and Usage does not specify a preference, but uses "news conference" throughout.

When those reporters are through with the conference, whether press or news, they write something: a "story" or an "article." Again, the difference may be subtle. A "story" outside of journalism can be anything from a fairy tale ("Read me a story, Daddy") to a lie ("She made up a story about why she was late"). An "article" can also be a piece of something — an "article" of clothing, "articles" of incorporation — as well as a word for what journalists produce. Interestingly, Webster's New World College Dictionary defines "article" in that sense as "a complete piece of writing, as a report or essay, that is part of a newspaper, magazine, or book," but its thesaurus specifies that an "article" is "nonfiction appearing in a periodical."

When you use synonyms, think about their connotations, the associations people make with them. And remember that nearly every time, a banana is just a banana.

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Merrill Perlman is adjunct assistant professor at the Columbia Graduate School of Journalism and president of Merrill Perlman Consulting, offering consulting and freelance editing services and training in journalism, grammar and usage. Among her clients are The New York Times, ProPublica and the Poynter Institute. She writes the "Language Corner" column and blog for Columbia Journalism Review. Merrill retired in June 2008 after 25 years at The New York Times, most recently as director of copy desks with responsibility for managing 150 copy editors. Click here to read more articles by Merrill Perlman.

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Comments from our users:

Wednesday September 28th 2011, 6:15 PM
Comment by: Peter John (Lenoir, NC)
I really appreciate this. That what really makes two words synonyms is that they do have different meanings. If they carried identical meanings they would not be synonyms, they would be the same word. The subtle differences really indicate what the true definiton of each is, not their similar applications.
Monday October 3rd 2011, 3:23 PM
Comment by: noblsavaj (San Antonio, TX)
You are correct that so-called "synonyms" differ. Each word has a specific contextual, resonant meaning to the intended audience. Dog your canine all you like, but they are not the same.
Sunday March 25th 2012, 2:35 AM
Comment by: Marjorie D.
Why use one word when twenty will do? Synonyms do not always mean what we think they mean, hence the innovation of such a wonderful tool at the visual thesaurus...!!

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