Why we should use synonyms carefully to avoid distortions

Once, a regular contributor to the opinion pages in the local dailies confided in me that he could barely recognize a truncated opinion he had submitted for publication, except for his name as the signature. His complaint was that without introducing anything new to what he had penned, an editor simply substituted most of his wording with what he (editor)believed was the best.

His question was: Must an editor rewrite whatever comes his or her way even when there is no compelling need? I must admit I was at pains to offer a convincing explanation for this.

Basically, an editor is taxed with making what is submitted better by adding value in the form of correcting grammatical errors, confirming accuracy of the information provided, ensuring the article is in good taste, filling information gaps that are visible and ensuring the opinion does not expose the newspaper to libel suits for propagating outrageous claims against individuals.

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On other occasions, an editor tries to remove the monotony of the repetition of some words.

The overuse of certain words in writing takes the shine off the work. Thus, an editor is sometimes forced to use synonyms. 

The use of nouns, pronouns and synonyms helps make opinions or articles read better. However, that is not always the case as some of the synonyms are restricted in scope and could fail to convey the real intention of the writer if not properly considered. The dictionary definition of synonym is; a word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another word or a phrase. 

The exhortation

Seasoned writers develop their own unique writing styles and most use words that convey a deeper meaning than what the casual reader gets from cursory reading. The exhortation to ‘read between the lines’ is informed by this. Sometimes it is not necessary to be blunt; one simply has to lead the reader to a conclusion derived from the context and the choice of certain words.

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Many other times, the use of an analogy achieves greater effect than a direct declaration.

But because the writer, whether in the media or publishing industry doesn’t have the last word on the published article or book, it is possible to find alterations that completely negate what the writer had in mind. On rare occasions, the substitution of certain words kills the active voice in which an article or opinion has been written. In the end, the delivery is in the passive as opposed to active voice.

Publishing firms

The tendency to use synonyms to eliminate monotony, or just because someone else feels that the substitute word serves a better purpose than the writers’ choice ends up either adding value and more clarity or taking away value from an otherwise good writing. But having taken cognizance of such possibilities, publishing firms and the media have put in place various checks to ensure such incidents are minimized. However, errors still occur.

The noun ‘man’ has a number of synonyms, among them; male, guy, gentleman, lad or bloke.  When ‘man’ is used in the verb form, its synonyms are; staff, crew or occupy.

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As such, depending on which form of the word is used, applying any of the synonyms without considering how the word has been originally used could end up distorting the meaning. A harassed editor could opt to use a synonym but forget to amend other words in the sentence to make it fit correctly.

If one was to simply write ‘John is a man’ and an editor amended it to read “John is a male’, the two sentences are not fundamentally different. Both are grammatically correct but do not necessarily mean the same thing. ‘Male’ has to do with gender despite it being one of the synonyms for ‘man’. The first sentence could either mean that John is ‘male’ (gender), or, where man is used figuratively, could mean ‘courageous’, ‘strong’. It would be incorrect, even figuratively, to use ‘male’ to denote courage.

One can say ‘Man up’ as encouragement or exhortation to greater effort where it is needed, but cannot say “Male up’ as a form of encouragement.

Some of the synonyms for the plural noun ‘data’ are; ‘facts’, ‘figures’, ‘statistics’ (in the plural form) ‘intelligence’, ‘evidence’  ‘information’ (both singular and plural forms) and ‘background’ ‘statement (singular form). These synonyms, unless used carefully, could fundamentally change meaning and introduce grammatical errors.

Mr Chagema is a correspondent at The [email protected]

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Language UseSynonymsEditing Texts