TESOL France: Leo Selivan on synonymy

Blog - hancockmcdonald.com/blog/66

Leo Selivan’s presentation was founded on the insight that synonymy in English can usually be traced to the hybrid history of the language. In most synonymous pairs, one member of the pair can trace its history to Germanic influence, and the other, to Latinate influence. An example of the might be ‘buy’ and ‘purchase’. Quite often, the Germanic partner in the pair may be a multi-word verb, for example, in the pair ‘put out’ and ‘extinguish’. However, synonymy is never total – there will always be a difference of nuance in any such pair. Differences may lie in register, collocation, semantic prosody and colligation.

In vocabulary teaching, Leo argued, it is more helpful to focus on distinctions than similarities. If you tell a learner from a Latinate L1 that ‘put out’ and ‘extinguish’ are identical, they will tend to settle for always using the latter, thereby condemning themselves to a register they probably didn’t intend. This satisfyingly detailed presentation concluded with a set of practical tips which centred around the importance of showing lexical items in context and not in isolation.


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