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Power of the “Word”

So Intense: Synonyms and Changes in Degree

We’ve seen how single words and phrases can influence the meaning of a particular sentence. With adverbs and adjectives, the nouns and verbs of the sentences stay intact, but they are modified by new words.

We can make some very subtle changes to the words themselves, as well. You’ve probably used a thesaurus before in hopes that it would spice up your writing in a particular essay. The risk of using a thesaurus, though, is that “synonyms” can be a bit of an overstatement. There are many instances in which synonyms don’t mean quite the same thing. Often, writers create subtle shadings in meaning through the strategic use of synonyms.

Let’s take a fairly obvious example. The difference between these two sentences is not hard to see.

Richard hates his math class.

Richard likes his math class.

If we change a single word, the whole meaning of the sentence changes very drastically. Likes and hates are called antonyms (from Greek anti (against) and nym (name)), and they have opposite meanings from one another.

Things become a little harder to discern, though, when we’re working with synonyms. Consider the following two sentences.

Richard likes his math class.

Richard loves his math class.

In this case, the two words are basic synonyms in that they both have a positive meaning, but the difference is one of degree. Love, in this case, is an intensification of the word like. In other words, if the first sentence tells us that Richard likes his math class, the second tells us that he likes his math class a whole lot.

Things get even more difficult with closer synonyms. Consider the following two sentences.

Richard loves his math class.

Richard adores his math class.

In this case, too, adores is an intensification of the word loves. Though the two sentences mean roughly the same thing, the second sentence indicates that Richard loves his math class a whole lot.

So why do synonyms exist? Is it just because there are a few writers who want to sound fancier than others? Well, sometimes, maybe. It’s definitely a demonstration of learning to say pulchritudinous rather than beautiful, but as we’ve seen even from the synonyms above, many synonyms aren’t quite synonyms. While many synonyms mean roughly the same thing, they usually don’t mean exactly the same thing, as we’ve seen with love and adore, or as you can see between ugly and hideoushate and despise, or friendly and intimate.

Words without positive and negative connotations can have intensifying synonyms as well. Let’s start with a basic sentence.

The boy held his mother’s hand.

We can insert a number of synonyms into this sentence that will change the meaning of the sentence. We can make the subject of the sentence either more precise, as in this sentence.

The infant held his mother’s hand.

Or we can make it more general, as in this sentence.

The child held his mother’s hand.

The sentences mean roughly the same thing, though the change in subject gives us different information.

Let’s see what happens now if we change the verb, held, to one of its synonyms.

The boy clenched his mother’s hand.

Now the verb no longer seems quite so neutral. Held could mean any number of things, but the verb clenched suggests that the boy is holding tightly and nervously to his mother’s hand. In this case, the synonym clenched does the work of the modifying adverbs tightly and nervously.

How about this sentence?

The boy seized his mother’s hand.

In this case, seized operates as a synonym for the word held, but where clenched told us that the boy was nervous or scared, seized tells us that the boy is overly aggressive. It looks like these synonyms don’t mean quite the same thing after all.

In this exercise, choose the word that intensifies the italicized word.

31. Paul was so hungry that he ate all the ice cream.

a)    ingested

b)    devoured

c)    consumed

d)    chewed

32. Linda enjoyed the experience of meeting the famous novelist.

a)    partied

b)    liked

c)    did

d)    relished

33. Although tickets were difficult to find, John wanted to go the game.

a)    hoped

b)    sought

c)    longed

d)    desired

34. After the game, Patty was so tired that she lay down on the ground.

a)    plopped

b)    slept

c)    rested

d)    sat

35. George was tired of watching his friends bicker with each other, so he left the house.

a)    went out of

b)    departed

c)    stormed out of

d)    exited

36. Mick was happy that he finally understood quadratic equations.

a)    pleased

b)    thrilled

c)    good

d)    content

37. Make sure to take your coat when you go out later—it’s cold outside.

a)    chilled

b)    lukewarm

c)    freezing

d)    chilly

38. Because he read so many books this summer, Richard has a big advantage on the SAT.

a)    literacy

b)    good

c)    tremendous

d)    large

39. The idea of “free trade” was important to the economist’s theories.

a)    central

b)    notable

c)    significant

d)    financial

40. I usually don’t like dogs, but yours is just cute.

a)    charming

b)    nice

c)    pretty

d)    adorable

In this exercise, consider the two sentences given in each question. Choose the answer choice that explains how the word change in the second sentence modifies the meaning of the first sentence.

41. I like the pants you picked out, but the shirt is ugly.

I like the pants you picked out, but the shirt is hideous.

a)    The word hideous reduces the severity of the word ugly.

b)    The word hideous intensifies the word ugly.

c)    The word hideous changes the meaning of the sentence entirely.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

42. Around late July, Rory is usually ready to start school again.

Around late July, Rory is usually eager to start school again.

a)    The word eager gives the sentence the opposite meaning from the word ready.

b)    The word ready shows Rory’s preference, whereas the word eager is neutral.

c)    The word eager shows Rory’s preference, whereas the word ready is neutral.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

43. I can’t believe I worked so much for such a small paycheck.

I can’t believe I worked so much for such a tiny paycheck.

a)    The word tiny intensifies the word small.

b)    The word tiny reduces the intensity of the word small.

c)    The word tiny gives the sentence a new, different meaning.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

44. The bodybuilder’s muscles were large.

The bodybuilder’s muscles were bulging.

a)    The word bulging suggests that the muscles are unhealthy.

b)    The word bulging intensifies the sentence by providing an image.

c)    The word bulging implies that the bodybuilder should work out more.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

45. The tastes of Coke and Pepsi seem similar to me.

The tastes of Coke and Pepsi seem identical to me.

a)    The word identical intensifies the word similar.

b)    The word identical provides a more reasonable approach than does the word similar.

c)    The word similar is more specific than the word identical.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

46. We were hoping for a good match, but the other school’s team beat us.

We were hoping for a good match, but the other school’s team destroyed us.

a)    The word beat works much better with the word hoping earlier in the sentence.

b)    The word beat is not adequately specific to describe the severity of the beating.

c)    The word destroyed gives a more extreme tone than the word beat.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

47. Once he got past security, Jack moved through the embassy.

Once he got past security, Jack crept through the embassy.

a)    The word crept shows that Jack does not know his way around the embassy.

b)    The word crept suggests that Jack has something to hide.

c)    The word crept tells the reader with certainty that Jack is a spy.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

48. Hoping to get to the appointment on time, Gretchen drove through the town.

Hoping to get to the appointment on time, Gretchen raced through the town.

a)    The word raced describes the manner in which Gretchen drove.

b)    The word raced reduces the intensity of the word drove.

c)    The word raced suggests that Gretchen was competing with another driver.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

49. Because he forgot two years in a row, Bruce said he’d remember his wife’s birthday this year.

Because he forgot two years in a row, Bruce swore he’d remember his wife’s birthday this year.

a)    The word said suggests that Bruce has no indication of remembering this year.

b)    The word swore suggests that Bruce is angry at his wife.

c)    The word said is neutral, and the word swore intensifies it.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.

50. In order to understand the philosopher’s theories, it’s important to read Kant.

In order to understand the philosopher’s theories, it’s essential to read Kant.

a)    The word essential suggests that the philosopher’s theories cannot be understood without reading Kant.

b)    The word important suggests that reading Kant is irrelevant to the philosopher’s theories.

c)    The word essential suggests that the philosopher’s theories are less important than those of Kant.

d)    There is no change to the sentence.