Learn to Use Synonyms And Antonyms Effectively

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Three years ago, I have completed my compilation of a tri-lingual dictionary in Tagalog-Cebuano-English intended for Filipino users. The thing that makes it unique is the presentation of the synonyms right after the definitions of English counterpart to the main Tagalog word. The users can choose the precise words because each synonym comes with its definitions, unlike a commercial thesaurus in the market which only provides the list of undefined synonyms. This is quite impractical because the user will have to consult again the dictionary for the meaning. In my book, a user doesn’t need to mess up his study table with other references; my book alone suffices.

Precision is one of the marks of power. The concert singer who is exactly “on pitch,” the marksman who hits the “bull’s eye,” the pilot who glides onto the runway right “on the beam”—all display a precision which is the mark of superior skill. So it is with words. Precision in the use of words is essential to achieving word power. How do you gain this precision in the use of words? The answer lies in the use of synonyms and antonyms.


Synonyms are words that have similar meanings, although it doesn’t mean that they have exactly the same meaning. Each one has a meaning slightly different from the others. You should have as many synonyms as possible in your vocabulary so that you can say exactly what you want to say and understand exactly what you read and hear.

Let’s see how synonyms work. If a neighbor asked you if you were a pupil in East High School, would you say “Yes”? If he suggested that your ten-year-old brother was a student at the Jefferson Elementary School, would he be right? If he called you a scholar, would he be using the correct word?

Note how the dictionary sets you right about these three words:

The word pupil applies to a child in school, or to someone studying privately with a teacher. Example:

  • Rosemarie is a pupil of the famous singer, Lady Gaga.

  • Bobby is a pupil at Jefferson Elementary School.

The word student applies to someone attending a higher school, a college or university.


  • Several hundred high school students attended the rally.

  • I am a first-year student at East High School.

  • Cousin Bob is a third-year student at the State University.

The word scholar is reserved for a learned person who is an authority in some field, or to a student who has a scholarship.


  • Cousin William is a Biblical scholar.
  • Charles is a Fulbright scholar.

You can see from the foregoing that you might, quite properly, feel insulted if someone said you were a pupil at East High School and that you much prefer to be called a student. At the same time, you will realize that you have no right to be called a scholar. This is exactly what we mean when we say that the more careful you are in the choice of synonyms, the more effective will be your use of language.

Let us illustrate by another example. Among the synonyms listed in one dictionary (Webster’s New World Dictionary, College Edition) for the word brave, we find courageous, bold, audacious, valiant, intrepid, and plucky. To a casual user, these seven synonyms are interchangeable, but to a discriminating user of language, they are not. Each synonym carries a meaning not present in the other six. Note the following very carefully:

  • brave implies fearlessness in meeting danger or difficulty; it has the broadest application of the words considered here.
  • courageous suggests constant readiness to deal with things fearlessly by reason of stout-hearted temperament or a resolute spirit.
  • bold stresses a daring temperament, whether displayed courageously, presumptuously, or defiantly.
  • audacious suggests an imprudent or reckless boldness.
  • valiant emphasizes a heroic quality in the courage shown.
  • intrepid implies absolute fearlessness and especially suggests dauntlessness in facing the new or unknown.
  • plucky emphasizes gameness in fighting against something when one is at a decided disadvantage.

Thus we could speak of a brave warrior, a courageous pioneer, a bold robber, an audacious plan, a valiant knight, an intrepid explorer, and a plucky youngster.

Note also that synonyms add variety and color to language. The use of the same words over and over again is the mark of a poor writer or speaker. Note the monotonous effect of the word grand in the following paragraph:

The Halloween dance was a grand affair. The freshmen did a grand job in decorating. The gymnasium, with its goblins, black cats, and witches on giant broomsticks, was a grand sight. The school band played grand music for the occasion. Last, but not least, there was a grand display of cider and doughnuts, enough to feed an army of hungry people. All in all, it was a truly grand affair.

Can you rewrite the foregoing paragraph, substituting more discriminating words for the italicized? Consult a dictionary for appropriate synonyms if necessary.

In all your speaking and writing, keep the following rule in mind: Use words with care. If you do, your language will be vivid, colorful, and accurate.


Antonyms are words that mean the opposite of each other. Light—dark; near—far; night—day; and active—inactive are antonyms. Knowing how to use antonyms will make your speech and writing vivid and colorful. Whenever you need to present a contrast, antonyms will help you.

Can you think of an antonym for each word below? Show that you understand how to use antonyms by using each new word correctly in a sentence:

responsive, prewar, uninterested, overpass, arrival, immovable, unity, inefficient, difficult, defective, extraordinary, irregular, remote, self-assurance, non-serviceable, lenient, huge, illegible, impassable, inaudible.


This is just for fun (for study also). Consult a dictionary if necessary:

  • Could the same person be uninterested and disinterested in the same project at the same time?

  • Could a person be healthy in an unhealthful climate?

  • If someone said you were a bore, would you be happy about it? If he said you were a boor, would you feel better or worse?

  • What is the difference between flash, glitter and sparkle?
  • If a person has an irritable disposition, he is easily annoyed. If he has an irascible disposition, what is his trouble?

  • Can you be gay without being merry? Could you be merry without being gay?

  • Neat, tidy, trim are often used interchangeably, but each word implies something different from the others. Try using them in your sentences.
  • Could you be eager without being anxious?
  • You would not object to being told you were curious. How would you feel if someone told you you were inquisitive?

  • If certain facts were obvious, would they also be apparent? Under what circumstances would you use evident?
  • If a person is unscrupulous, would you care to deal with him? What word would you use to designate the opposite trait?

  • Niggardly persons have few friends. What quality would they have to cultivate to change the situation?
  • If a person were illiterate, would he necessarily have to be uncultured?

  • You attend a student rally; nothing much is accomplished. A classmate says the meeting was unorganized; another say it was disorganized. Which one is correct?

  • If you found a classroom door marked “Atypical,” what type of student would you expect to find entering it?

  • You find the word abridged on the cover of a novel you are about to read. Would you expect a complete telling of the story as the author wrote it?

  • If you were told that doing a certain thing would be a disservice to the school, would you persist in doing it?

  • What type of a person is a malcontent? What word would you use to indicate someone of opposite disposition?

  • What is the difference between asocial and antisocial?
  • What is the difference in meaning between the following: illegal and illegible.

My advice to non-native English student-readers of this Hub:

If you want to excel in the English language, you better start now. Review your reading of this article and do the following:

  • Enter in your vocabulary notebook five interesting pairs of synonyms you have encountered.

  • Enter in your vocabulary notebook five striking pairs of antonyms you have learned.

  • Try using them in your daily speech or writing.

  • Don’t cease following me because this is just a beginning of my English Tutorial topics.

  • If you happened to be a non-native English speaker or writer yet superior than the writer of this topic, please ignore the foregoing advice. Thanks for reading and may God bless you.


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