Tuesday, August 14, 2007

Synonymously Yours,

My favorite route to a Tutor Tip is by way of a question from the field. This week Meg Gores asked a question that made me scramble a little to come up with a suitable answer (see below).

From: Meg
To: Brian Anderson

Hi Brian,
Ivan says he has a problem with synonyms--how to know which word to use in different situations. He says that there is only one word for each thing in Czech, so I can see where it's a difficult concept.

Glad that you had a good first lesson with Ivan. Now, as for synonyms, you made me think of a
song by the acid jazz duo, Mrs. Fun, “Why Are Words So Different?” They ask a good question--and so do you. No doubt at all, English has a bulky lexicon, a massive dictionary, a weighty word bank. Synonyms can bring out many fine shades of meaning but they can be confusing, too. What can you do to help your learner with synonyms? My thinking is that you can help him to make friends with them.

The popular website Dave’s ESL Café turned up a few activities that included using synonyms. They might give you a few ideas to try out.

  • http://www.eslcafe.com/idea/index.cgi?display:924287574-25897.txt This is a sort of game that has students change certain words to their synonyms or antonyms to change the meaning of a poem. It takes a little work to find a poem that’s not too complex, too opaque, or too risqué, but I hunted around the web a little bit and gave this treatment to a scrap of a John Donne poem. It was fun! Alternatively, you might try the same treatment on the lyrics to pop songs.

by John Donne

O and catch a falling star…

Tell me where all past years are,
Or who cleft the devil's foot,
Teach me to hear mermaids singing,
Or to keep off envy's stinging,
And find
What wind
Serves to advance an honest mind


with synonyms

Go and trap a falling star…
Inform me where long ago years are
Or who cracked the angel’s hand
School me to hear the sirens crooning
To avoid desire’s pain
And locate
What breeze
Works to push a truthful spirit

In the end, a learner has to figure out which words he likes to use. Perhaps ask him to think of some common nouns, verbs and adjectives. Then you come up with three synonyms for each, using your thesaurus. If you don’t have a proper thesaurus book, then you might use a computer with MS Word. If you have a recent version of Word (or Outlook, which I used), you can find synonyms by typing the word, then clicking the right button on your mouse to bring up the option to get synonyms. I shot a picture of my computer screen to show you what I mean. See below:

Synonyms provided for the word option included up alternative, choice, selection, etc. Another way to get synonyms is to click once on the word and press SHIFT + F7. You might take a word like man, which bring up the synonyms, gentleman, guy, chap, male and dude. Put those synonyms on Post-It Notes and stick them onto one of three columns on a piece of paper. Label the columns “Formal | Casual | Technical” You would, for instance, stick the word dude in Casual, and male in Technical.

Next, you want to encourage him to try to use the word he wants to use in sentence form. “I borrowed a cigarette from the dude at the bar,” or “That man has my vote, I must say!”

Those are my thoughts. How about yours? Send some thoughts/opinions/feelings/views my way, would you? Thanks for being a tutor.

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