Synonyms are different words that have exactly the same or nearly the same meaning, such as male and man or third-level education and university.
Lots of IELTS teachers, myself included, stress the importance of using synonyms in your writing. Synonyms help us to vary our language and show the examiner that we have a wide-ranging vocabulary. However, synonyms are also very dangerous because if used incorrectly, it can not only lower your mark for vocabulary, but also for task response, and coherence.
This article will look at some real essays that used synonyms incorrectly to show you how dangerous they can be.
Why use synonyms?
When we get an IELTS Writing Task there will be certain keywords in the question and our writing would sound very repetitive if we simply wrote the same words over and over again. So to make our writing sound better we use synonyms.
For example, if the question asked us ‘Computers are being used more and more in education. Do you agree?’ we would have to use the words ‘computers’ and ‘education’ many times in our answer. We could use the words ‘I.T.’, ‘laptops’ or ‘iPads’ instead of just repeating the word ‘computers’ over and over again.
We should also paraphrase the question in our very first sentence when answering an IELTS Writing task and synonyms are one of the key ways of doing this. Click the link above for more information on paraphrasing.
Finally, we can use synonyms to show the examiner that we have a wide-ranging vocabulary. If you repeat the same keywords many times, it indicates to the examiner that you don’t know any other ways of expressing those words and that you have a narrow vocabulary.
What’s the danger?
The dangerous thing about synonyms is that people use them incorrectly or try too hard and force them into their essays.
When using a synonym we first need to think about the meaning. The meaning should be exactly the same. I do not encourage students to use synonyms that mean ‘nearly the same’ because it often leads to mistakes.
Question: It is important that young children are taught art, drama and music, alongside more traditional subjects like maths and science. Do you agree or disagree?
Paraphrase: It is important that young people are taught extracurricular activities, alongside serious subjects like mathematics, biology and chemistry.
This student has changed the following words using synonyms, but not all are correct:
young children – young people
art, drama and music- extracurricular activities
traditional subjects- serious subjects
The problem that this student has is they are using what I call ‘loose synonyms’. These are words that don’t really mean the same as each other and the result is that you are writing about something completely different from the question. This leads to you writing unrelated ideas and this can lower the score of your whole essay.
For instance, ‘young children’ could mean people between the ages of around 1-10, but ‘young people’ can mean anything from 1-30 years of age. The question is focusing on young children and by using young people, you are talking about an irrelevant age group.
Another example is ‘extracurricular activities’, which means things you do outside of school, whereas the question relates to school subjects. The person who wrote this answer went on to mention ‘extracurricular activities’ several times in the rest of her essay and this meant she got a much lower score because she was talking about irrelevant ideas.
Finally, ‘traditional’ and ‘serious’ are very loose synonyms; so loose I would not really recognise them as synonyms at all.
The lesson to take away from this example is only use synonyms you know are 100% the same. If you are not sure they are 100% the same, don’t use them.
Question: The growth in crime among teenagers can be attributed to an increase in the use of violent video games.
To what extent do you agree or disagree?
Paraphrase: The rise of acts of violent in young ones are often viewed as being caused by the exposure to fierce audio-visual games.
This student has changed the following words:
crime- acts of violent
teenagers- young ones
video games- audio-visual games
These are all wrong and are typical of a student who feels like they must use synonyms and will use them at any cost i.e. they are more worried about using synonyms than writing a sentence that is clear and correct.
‘Crime’ means all crime and ‘acts of violent’ is specifically violent crime. They have also used the wrong form of ‘violence’.
‘Young ones’ does not really mean teenagers and would never be used by a native speaker in an academic essay.
‘Fierce’ does not mean the same things as ‘violent’.
‘Audio-visual’ might sound like high level vocabulary, but you would never refer to ‘video games’ in this way.
It would have been better for this student to have used simpler words and phrases or just have copied the word. If you are not 100% sure about the grammar and meaning of the word, don’t try to force it. It is better to repeat the word, than force a synonym into your essay that is incorrect.
Question: Today people are travelling more than ever before. Why is this the case? What are the benefits of travelling for the traveller?
In the question above, one of my students replaced the word ‘travelling’ with ‘commuting‘. She continued to use the word ‘commuting’ and ‘commute’ throughout the whole essay.
‘Commuting’ means specifically travelling to and from work everyday. The result was that her whole essay was full of irrelevant ideas.
You should never take any chances with keywords from the question. If it is a keyword that is crucial to the meaning of the question and your answer as a whole, only change it if you are 100% certain the meaning is exactly the same.
Alternatives to Synonyms
Instead of using synonyms you can use the following things to vary your language:
- Change the form of the word
If you can’t think of a good synonym you can simply list an example or two. So in the question above about ‘computers’ it is perfectly acceptable to say ‘laptops and tablets’. These are the exact things that students use in class, so it is fine to write them. Like synonyms, just make sure that the examples match the word 100%.
You can also define the word if you can’t think of a synonym. So for our example above about travelling, you could say ‘people going from place to place’. This is obviously much longer than a simply synonym, but it is much easier sometimes to write about something in simple language than think of one complicated word.
Finally, it is always acceptable to change the form of the word or phrase. So instead of trying to think of a synonym of ‘violent video games’ (which is very hard to do) you could say ‘video games that have violence’. All we have done is change the word from an adjective (violent) to a noun (violence).
- Only change a word if you are 100% sure the meanings are the same.
- Be aware of ‘loose synonyms’.
- If you change it, the grammar must also be correct.
- Be particularly careful with keywords from the question.
- If you can’t think of a synonym, try one of the alternative methods.
- If in doubt, don’t change it. It is better to repeat the word and be correct, than force a synonym and be wrong.
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