Wednesday, August 6, 2014

Using Synonyms to Avoid Repetition

Previously, we discussed the need for avoiding the too-frequent repetition of words, and mentioned that you can use synonyms and descriptive words to this end. For example:

  • The manor loomed above her, at least three stories tall. The entire edifice was wreathed so thickly with crawling ivy that it was difficult for her to tell what the manor was made out of.

In this example, we've used edifice in place of manor in one spot, to avoid using the word "manor" three times in two sentences. The variety of descriptive words helps the prose to flow more smoothly.

The same thing can be done to avoid repeating a character's name too often. Take this example from Brandon Sanderson's Mistborn (emphasis added):

  • "Fears?" Kelsier asked, turning to look up at Sazed. Despite Kelsier's above-average height, the Terrisman was still a good head taller. I'm not sure if he fears anything, Saze."

Notice how the author avoided repeating Sazed's name by referring to him as "the Terrisman." It is the same method of avoiding word repetition.

Some cautions:

Don't use too many synonyms

In our first example, we used edifice in place of manor. Here are a few other words we could possibly have used:


But if you look at that example again, you'll notice that I chose to use the word "manor" twice rather than replace it with one of these words. Why?

Too many synonyms can become confusing to the reader; it becomes difficult for them to keep track of what they all refer too.  It also calls too much attention to the fact that you're trying to avoid repeating yourself, which can pull the reader out of the story. Usually, you don't want to use more than one synonym for a given word in a section. So in the first example, I might have described the manor simply as a building when the characters were far away and still approaching it. Then, when they have drawn close and I am describing the manor's appearance, I use manor and edifice, but no more than that. 

Make sure that it is clear what your synonym refers to

Another hazard of using synonyms is that they are not always as clear as the author thinks. We'll take the example of manor again. The Merriam-Webster dictionary lists the following words as synonyms for the word "manor":  castle, chateau, estate, hacienda, hall, manor, manor house, manse, palace, and villa.

The problem with most of these words is that most of them evoke a completely different image than the word "manor."  Take this example:

  • Amy was relieved to finally leave the manor behind. As they drove away, she turned and looked out the back window as the palace vanished behind the trees.

That didn't work at all, did it? Using palace almost made it sound as though there were two buildings, as if Amy left one building and is now looking at another. Don't use synonyms unless it is clear what they're replacing.

One more caution on using synonyms as placeholders for a character's name (as in the Mistborn example above) can be found in this post.

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