Stifling Synonyms

| Learning | July 24, 2017

(I’m helping a ninth grader with an essay she received a poor grade on. It’s easy to see why; the paper is filled with awkward phrasing like, “the battle instigates when Napoleon convinces the other animals to fight,” “propaganda contains a lot of drawbacks,” and “Napoleon’s war plans accord with Stalin’s brilliant military strategy in real life.”)

Me: “So… there are some good ideas in here, but your syntax is a little hard to understand. See how your teacher marked ‘awk’ in certain places?”

Student: “Yeah, but I don’t really get what she means when she says it’s awkward.”

Me: “You know, when I was in school, I had this friend who didn’t think she had a strong enough vocabulary, so she relied on a thesaurus to try and make her essays sound more impressive. But a lot of the time, she didn’t fully understand the words she was using — whether they took an object, or had a certain connotation — and it actually hurt the clarity of her writing.”

Student: “Oh…” *blinks, tilts her head thoughtfully* “Yeah, I do that.”

Me: “I kind of figured.”

Student: “So I should stop using a thesaurus?”

Me: “Well, you need to use words you know. If that means using a simpler word to be safe, sometimes that’s what you’ll have to do. If you do use a synonym, look it up in a sentence to make sure it’s actually what you want. And…”

Student: “Yes?”

Me: “Maybe don’t talk about Joseph Stalin being ‘brilliant’? Just a thought.”

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