Ever heard the phrase “It’s on the tip of my tongue?”.
It’s what we say when we’re trying desperately to remember a specific word. We’re so close to remembering it we can almost taste it, but for some reason our brain is refusing to give it up.
It’s pretty frustrating, right?
But perhaps even more frustrating is struggling to explain something in English and realising you simply don’t have the vocabulary at all. So what do you do? Well, you probably end up using the same, tired old adjectives and verbs you always use:
How was the movie? Great! And what about the meal afterwards? Also, great! And the walk home in the moonlight? Yes, erm, that was great as well…
Unsurprisingly, this does not make for an interesting conversation.
So, what you need to do is expand your vocabulary. This can be done in a variety of ways: by immersing yourself in English-language media, by writing detailed word lists every time you encounter some new vocabulary or by learning some handy synonyms.
We’re going to be looking at method three in this article. But first of all, what exactly is a synonym? A synonym, simply put, is a word which means the same as another word. Like scared and frightened, for example.
However, it’s often a bit more complicated than that.
Languages are rich with meaning and synonyms (or synonyms in context) often have subtle distinctions which native speakers can pick up on easily. These differences might be the strength of the word (scared and terrified, for example) or a synonym might describe a more specific way of doing something (laughing and chuckling, for example). Either way, understanding the small but crucial differences between synonyms can add real fluency to your English, whether spoken or written.
Adjectives expressing different strengths
Let’s start by taking the words good and bad. These are very common words with easily understood meanings in the context of giving an opinion. We’re going to look at alternatives you can use which represent weaker or stronger emotions.
For example, perhaps we’re asked: What did you think of the film? I thought it was good. We could reply: Well, actually, I felt it was…
Weaker than 'good':
- alright / okay / not bad / fine / fairly good
Stronger than 'good':
- fantastic / great / brilliant / incredible / outstanding / exceptional
We might be faced with the similar question: What did you think of the film? It was bad, right? And we could reply: Well, actually, I thought it was…
Weaker than 'bad':
- not very good / pretty poor / disappointing / underwhelming
Stronger than 'bad':
- terrible / atrocious / awful / dreadful / horrendous
Let’s take a look at a new word. This time we’re going to focus on scared. Again, this is a common adjective. However, this time it’s describing a negative mental state.
Again, let’s start with a question: How did you feel when that dog started running towards us snarling? I was scared. Well, actually, I was…
Weaker than 'scared':
- concerned / worried / unnerved / uneasy / anxious
Stronger than 'scared':
- terrified / petrified / paralysed with fear / frantic
This time we’re going to focus on adjectives which describe how angry we are about something. As before, let’s start with a question: How did you feel when Steve said we were the laziest people in the office? I was so angry! Well, actually, I was…
Weaker than 'angry':
- peeved / annoyed / irritated / frustrated / upset
Stronger than 'angry':
- furious / apoplectic / incensed / seething / incandescent
And finally, let’s take a look at some adjectives which describe how funny we consider something. The question: What did you think about that movie last night? I thought it was funny. Well, actually, I thought it was…
Weaker than 'funny':
- amusing, entertaining, humorous
Stronger than 'funny':
- hilarious, side-splitting, hysterical
Verbs expressing more specific ideas
Naturally, English learners are first introduced to the most common forms of words: eat, walk, talk, go etc. But as you progress, you can begin expressing different ideas with an expanded vocabulary. This might mean a subtle difference in meaning or it might be a more specific form of the action you’re describing.
Either way, employing these verbs can add variety to your language-use, enable you to speak in a more precise way and just generally increase your fluency.
We’re going to take several very common verbs as an example and look at the various synonyms, or semi-synonyms, we could use to express similar ideas.
- to chuckle - to quietly or inwardly laugh
- to guffaw - to laugh heartily or loudly, especially a ‘belly laugh’
- to snicker - to laugh while attempting to suppress the sound
- to cackle - to laugh in a shrill or harsh manner, associated with a witch’s laugh
- to jog - to run at a relaxed pace, especially for fitness
- to sprint - to run at full speed
- to bolt - to run at full speed, especially if done from fear or nervousness
- to dash - to travel at speed, especially when in a great hurry
To fall asleep:
- to nod off - to fall asleep, perhaps unintentionally
- to drop off - to fall asleep
- to pass out - to lose consciousness, used colloquially to describe falling asleep
- to crash out - to sleep instantly, often from exhaustion
Let's see how this works in practice. We’re going to look at two passages, the first containing our very common, general verbs and the second containing our more specific forms.
Take a look at the second part of this short story:
“We were having great fun, reminiscing about old times and laughing about all the trouble we used to get into at school. Anyway, I completely lost track of time and suddenly realised I was late for my shift at the pub. I said goodbye and ran across town. I only just made it in time. Anyway, work was a pain and we all had to stay late at the end of the night because the manager had lost the keys to lock up! By the time I got home I fell asleep as soon as my head hit the pillow!”
Now take a look at this version, using some of our synonyms:
“We were having great fun, reminiscing about old times and chuckling about all the trouble we used to get into at school. Anyway, I completely lost track of time and suddenly realised I was late for my shift at the pub. I said goodbye and sprinted across town. I only just made it in time. Anyway, work was a pain and we all had to stay late at the end of the night because the manager had lost the keys to lock up! By the time I got home I crashed out as soon as my head hit the pillow!”
Now take a look at part one of the same story. The words highlighted in bold are very common and fairly general. Use a thesaurus (you can find free thesauruses online) and replace the words with more appropriate adjectives and verbs. Once you’ve found a suitable candidate, look it up in a dictionary and make sure it fits, given the context of the story.
“Six weeks ago I met an old friend on the street. We hadn’t seen each other in years! We hugged like old friends do and immediately started talking about our news. He showed me some pictures of his six-month-old baby. She was so pretty! I told him I’d only just moved back to the area and wanted to catch up with all our old friends. We decided to go to a nearby bar and have a real talk about the past.”