Saturday, March 5, 2011

In exposition, it isn’t advisable to always call a spade a spade

The first time around, of course, it’s wise to heed this age-old admonition: “Call a spade a spade!” That way, the reader or listener will know precisely what we are talking about to begin with—“a digging implement adapted for being pushed into the ground with the foot.” But maybe, what we really mean is a “shovel,” that “hand implement consisting of a broad scoop or a more or less hollowed out blade with a handle used to lift and throw material.” Or perhaps we mean that small spade-like gardening implement called a “trowel,” in which case we can say that the spade we are referring to is more precisely a small “trowel”—even if it’s a tool that’s pushed into the ground by hand and not by foot. At any rate, we’ve come up with two words that, strictly speaking, aren’t the same as “spade,” but they have nearly the same meaning as “spade” in a particular way. In other words, “shovel” and “trowel” are synonyms of “spade” for our own purposes, so we’ll be perfectly justified in not calling our particular spade a spade the next time around.

I came up with the introductory wordplay above to highlight the role of synonyms as a device not only for clarifying what we mean but also for livening up what we want to say. Indeed, the adroit use of synonyms in our expositions can be a powerful antidote against boring our readers or listeners with the the same key words used over and over again. This is the point that I explore at length in the essay below, “Using synonyms to enliven prose,” that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2004. You just might find its suggested use of synonyms helpful in improving and enlivening your own expositions. (March 5, 2011)

Using synonyms to enliven prose

The French novelist Gustave Flaubert believed that only one word could give justice to a particular thing—“le mot juste”—and he obsessively searched for it before committing himself on paper. He may well have been right. After all, short of deliberately destroying the thing itself, there really isn’t much we can do to change its fundamental nature. Thus, in the English language, “an apple” will remain “an apple” till it’s eaten and digested, and “Eve” will remain “Eve” even after she has eaten that apple and is cast away from Paradise. Fortunately for us, however, there’s really no semantic law forbidding us to call “an apple” or “Eve” by some other word the next time it figures in our thoughts or on our tongues.

How dreary language, communication, and literature would be, in fact, if Flaubert’s prescription for words—like what is generally believed as the preferred French prescription for kissing—were to be followed to the letter! Then we would have to contend every time with the tedium of going through passages like this: “The apple is the popular edible fruit of the apple tree. The apple has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. The apple is widely cultivated in temperate climates. The apple has more than 7,000 varieties but only 40 are commercially important, and the most popular apple variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. Apples are of three main types: cooking apples, dessert apples, and apples for making cider.”

Using synonyms or similar words in place of a particular key word is actually one of the most powerful devices for giving zest and substance to language. They help ensure that our listeners or readers will not tune us out because of boredom. Synonyms, while not exactly le mot juste, allow us to clarify meaning by focusing on the word’s specific attributes, thus throwing new light on the same idea. They make laborious, complicated explanations unnecessary; as in painting, well-chosen single words or short phrases are quick brush strokes that illumine ideas or clarify meaning and intent. As Peter Mark Roget, author of Roget’s Thesaurus, remarked in his introduction to the revolutionary book in 1852: “Some felicitous expression thus introduced will frequently open the mind of the reader to a whole vista of collateral ideas.”

See what happens to the dreary apple passage above when we take Roget’s prescription to heart: “The apple, the mythical fruit often associated with the beginnings of the world and mankind, is the popular fruit of the tree of the same name. The fleshy, edible pome—usually of red, yellow, or green color—has the scientific name Malus sylvestris and belongs to the family Rosaceae. As a cousin of the garden rose, it has the same usually prickly shrub with feather-shaped leaves and five-petaled flowers. It is widely cultivated as a fruit crop in temperate climates. More than 7,000 varieties of the species are known but only 40 are commercially important, and its most popular variety in the U.S. is called Delicious. The fruit is of three main types: cooking, dessert, and the type for making cider.” This revised passage uses a total of eight apple synonyms and similar words: “popular fruit,” “tree of the same name,” “pome,” “a cousin of the garden rose,” “a fruit crop,” “species,” “variety,” and “the type”—each one capturing a new shade of meaning, aspect, connotation, or denotation of the apple and throwing the idea of the word “apple” in bolder relief.

We must beware, however, that synonyms can only establish contexts, not definitions; they help illuminate discourse but not offer an analysis of things. For instance, in the revised apple passage, the synonyms used will be useful only to the extent that each of them is already understood by the listeners or readers. All of the apple-related words used—except “pome”—work very well as synonyms in the passage because they are of common knowledge; depending on the target audience, however, “pome” may need some clarifying amplification. (A “pome,” for those confounded by the word, is “a fleshy fruit with an outer thickened fleshy layer and a central core with usually five seeds enclosed in a capsule.”) The speaker or writer must ultimately decide if such a definition is needed.

When using synonyms, we also must make sure that their antecedent words—whether nouns, pronouns, or verbs—are clear all throughout. There is always the danger of overdoing the word replacements, particularly when the conceptual link between the original sword and the synonym is not strong enough. In that case, repeating the original word or using the obvious pronoun for it—“he,” “she,” “it,” “they,” or “them”—may be more advisable. Go over the revised apple passage again and see how the pronoun “it” for apple was used twice to provide such a link and continuity. (January 12, 2004)
From the weekly column “English Plain and Simple” by Jose A. Carillo in The Manila Times, January 12, 2004 © 2004 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp. All rights reserved. This essay subsequently became part of the author’s book, Give Your English the Winning Edge, © 2009 by the Manila Times Publishing Corp.

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