A question of vocabulary

Helping students suffering from synonym-itis

It's such a pleasure to have students who are motivated to learn, and curious about the language. With students like these, lessons seem to just hum along all by themselves.

However, there is the little problem of how easily these enthusiastic learners can catch you out with curveball questions. For me, I find the vocabulary questions most difficult: 

“Teacher what's the difference between to ask and to question?”
“Teacher, is exceed the same as excess?”
“Should I use pupil or student?”
“Are commence and begin the same? And continue and resume?”
“Do merry and happy and enjoy mean the same?”
“How are hotel and guesthouse different?”

What should we do here? Answer the question, or brush it off? By brushing it off, I mean saying something like “They're the same”, or “Oh, one's American and the other is British”. The student will most likely accept these gestures – but this is stretching the truth for convenience. On the other hand, answering the question leads to two problems. Firstly, quite often the level of abstraction far exceeds what the less motivated learners in the class can cope with. So do you stop the class to deal with the questions, even at the risk of confusing everyone else? Secondly, the questions are usually off topic, and while it's a real pleasure having this kind of curiosity, it unfortunately detracts from the real focus of the lesson.

I find these off-the-cuff questions students throw around difficult to answer quickly and convincingly. The trick is to identify the difference simply and succinctly. Having failed with this alarmingly (and embarrassingly) a few times, I've come up with a little checklist that I run through when these kinds of questions arise in class:

Part of speech: in some cases, things are simply a matter of a difference in the part of speech. In the examples above, exceed is a verb, and excess is a noun. No problem. The same works for enjoy – a verb – and happy and merry - adjectives.

Denotation: sometimes the difference between two words is a real difference in meaning. This is what the students are most often looking for. In our examples above, continue and resume differ in their denotation. The difference is subtle: resume implies that activity has stopped, while continue doesn't. In the classroom, this difference is best given through an example: “Classes will resume after festival” or “Classes will continue as usual (so please ignore the festival)”.

A cline: for some word pairs, the difference can be most easily explained as a matter of intensity. This might be the case with guesthouse and hotel. We could add hostel here, and make a cline (or ladder) of how expensive the place is for a tourist. On the board, our cline may look something like this.

It's not perfect, but it provides a neat visual of the differences in the meanings of these words.

Collocation: sometimes two word pairs look like they are true synonyms, but in fact they act quite differently in that they bond (or collocate) with other very specific words. For example, merry collocates strongly with 'Christmas', while happy collocates more strongly with 'birthday' and other festivals.

Register: the words mean the same, but one has localized use, and is therefore less common. In the examples from my classroom, begin and commence differ in formality. We would only expect to find commence in fiction and academic texts, for example, and is used less frequently.

Connotation: certain words have a specific 'feeling'. Consider plump, as opposed to fat. One has a more insulting connotation. From the examples above, to ask and to question differ in their connotation. To 'question' someone has the feeling of suspicion and doubt, and may fit more naturally into a police or detective story. We can also apply connotation with the pupil/student pair, because pupil carries a connotation of youth.

Try it out. Using my list to identify the possible differences between two close synonyms, have a crack at dealing with these other questions from my students:

  • Is salary and allowance the same?
  • Is there a difference between blame and criticize?
  • Side order, or side dish?
  • What about cooperate and collaborate?
  • Is start the same as begin?
  • What about characteristic and personality?
  • Are force and compel the same?
  • Is tolerance the same as endurance? How are they different from patience?
  • Intend or desire?
  • Should I say gaze or look?
  • Insult and offend?
  • Is choose the same as decide?

And as a bonus for long termers in Thailand:

  • Does porjai mean pleased or satisfied?

A great many students don't ask these questions. But there are a few for whom this becomes something of an obsession. In my experience, students' tendency towards 'word-pair-itis' is exacerbated by the use of dictionaries that are too difficult for them. It might help getting these learners to use a learner's dictionary. I like the Meriam-Webster version (www.learnersdictionary.com).

In addition to a simple definition, this site gives a few example sentences for students to see the word in context. They are American contexts, but hey! Try it out using the example of gaze: you'll see it highlights the meaning of 'a long time', and goes on to contrast (for these synonym junkies) other closely related words like gape, stare and glare. It also gets the students constructively using their phones (see this cool blog), and allows you to get on with the task of actually focusing on the lesson for everyone else.

Steve Louw is the lead trainer of the popular Chichester College TESOL programme in Bangkok.


Thanks Memphis for the comment. I'm glad you are still in the game and enjoying it :)

I'll check that website page with a magnifying glass - my eyes are clearly not what they once were!!

By Steve, Chichester College, Thailand (6 months ago)

And this is why experience is so important in the teaching profession.

We all have to start somewhere, so I won't knock anyone for not knowing certain information, but schools really do get what they pay for. Young teachers are fine with younger students because it's more of a babysitting role in Thailand. Being able to teach is a bonus.

As for teaching adults, they don't often throw you curve balls. It's just the way Thai culture is. As I've become more experienced, I've become a lot more confident. I make it my business to know and learn grammar points. In class, you have to be confident. Confidence really does beget confidence. Students are humans all over the world, so they can sense weaknesses. In fact, you have to be a good actor. I don't mean by pretending or bullshitting your way through class, I mean coming across as confident, affable and being articulate.

Anytime I've been thrown a curve ball I've been quick on my feet.

"Teacher, what's the difference between...............?"

"Ah, good question. A great question! (Throw them a double thumbs up) You know what? I know the answer, but I'm not 100% sure. I don't want to give you the wrong answer so I'll get back to you"

Always make sure you get back to your students. They'll remember. You don't wanna be that useless tosser in life who says they'll get back to you and doesn't. You can find the answer out and then tell them next lesson. If I have time, when the students are busy, I will check my phone clandestinely and quietly. "Oh, Somchai, you asked earlier about the difference between x and y. Yea, sorry, My brain wasn't working properly before. Yea, that one's easy. The answer is (fill in answer)" Boom! Everyone is a winner. The Milky Bars are on me after class.

Oh, Steve, I studied with you many a moon ago. I was on your website the other day and noticed that the teacher trainers section had a few grammatical errors. Just thought I'd give you a heads up. Get a native-English speaker to check it for you (Just kidding, buddy)

Cheers for taking the time to write these articles.

By Memphis , Bangkok (6 months ago)

I have to admit being the same situation as the author and finding I did not provide a good answer for the student.

Unfortunately that is about the only part of the article I agree with.

I personally used my own experiences learning Thai to solve this question. I ask the student to give me the sentence they are trying to create. No one speaks in words. We are listening for context. The word alone can change its meaning based on the sentence it is being used in.

I have noticed that due to personalities Thai do not use tones when they speak. They use emotion. The context of the sound being made within the sentence is what is understood. I do understand that the tone is taught and used but over time context becomes much more important.

So I ask the student to write the sentence they will be using the word in and at the end of the lesson come and see me.

it is amazing how many where just trying to be smart arses. The ability to write a coherent sentence is beyond their grasp.

The onces that do come to me benefit greatly as I teach them a new way to create. Context is much stronger than grammar.

Have fun

By Paul, Chantaburi (6 months ago)

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