My biggest challenge is about synonyms. It is hard to differentiate differences of meanings of synonym words. Even after I consult various dictionaries, some times it is hard to get clarity. In such cases

  1. May I ask questions about word differences to the community?
  2. If not, what other sources are there to help me?
  3. As a non-native English speaker, I can have trouble grasping the meaning. At such times, may I ask the ELU community for more elaboration for any meaning?
  4. I’ve noticed that some of users are very good at answering and explaining such questions, but that other users feel these are not good questions. In such situations, may I directly ask the specific user about this question without polluting the site and then give them credit for it once I got answer?
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migrated from english.stackexchange.com Dec 25 '12 at 7:19

This question came from our site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts.

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There's no real way to contact users directly, so don't ask them personally unless they say it's ok. Many people would rather questions stay here, instead of leaking elsewhere into their lives (Twitter, email, etc.) –  simchona Dec 25 '12 at 7:30

5 Answers 5

up vote 9 down vote accepted

The best way to ask about synonyms on ELU is to make sure you include:

  • Dictionary definitions of the words you are asking about (i.e., give us all a baseline to work from in the question itself; don't make us all go look up the words in the dictionary as part of our analysis).

  • The reason that you're asking about those particular words. (Did you find them in a book? Are you writing a paper? If so, what is the paper for?)

As an example, I think the words milky and creamy could be considered synonymous in some contexts:

milky (adj.)
containing or mixed with a large amount of milk : a cup of sweet milky coffee.
resembling milk, esp. in color : not a blemish marred her milky skin.
• (of something that is usually clear) cloudy : the old man's milky, uncomprehending eyes.

creamy (adj.)
resembling cream in color or consistency : creamy white flowers | beat the sugar and egg yolks together until thick and creamy.
• containing a lot of cream : a thick, creamy dressing.

So, if you were to ask a question like this:

Milky vs. Creamy
Do milky and creamy mean the same thing?

or even:

Milky White or Creamy White?
When should I use milky vs creamy? Are they the same color?

then I think you'd be (rightfully) hit with a lot of comments, asking, "What does the dictionary say?" or, "Sometimes they do, and sometimes they don't; more context please."

But, if you said instead:

Milky White vs. Creamy White
I noticed that, in the dictionary, both milky and creamy can mean resembling milk (or cream) in color. NOAD says:

  • milky (adj.) resembling milk, esp. in color
  • creamy (adj.) resembling cream in color

and I'm writing about a room that was recently painted. I'm considering saying that the room is creamy white, or milky white. I would like to know:

(1) Is there a difference between those two? Would you imagine that a creamy white room is a slightly different color than a milky white room? (I typed "creamy white room" and "milky white room" into a Google image search, but the rooms looked pretty much the same color).

(2) Both of these words have other meanings (for example, creamy can mean "resembling cream in consistency;" milky can mean "cloudy, said of something that is usually clear, such as milky, uncomprehending eyes). If milky white and creamy white are essentially the same color, is there any reason I should avoid using one word or the other, because of some other meanings of the word?

Now, no one can say you haven't done any research (clearly you have), and no one can say there is not enough context (because it's abundantly provided). Furthermore, no one can ask why the question is relevant (you've explained that – you're writing about a recently painted room). I would wager that such a question would get both helpful answers and upvotes.

So, yes, questions about differences in meaning are welcome on ELU. However, it is vital to include sufficient detail in your question so that (a) it can be answered without requests for further clarification, and (b) it is evident that you haven't come to ELU before consulting readily available resources, such as a dictionary and search engine.

One last tidbit of advice

If you do ask a question, and someone in the community asks you something like, "Did you look at a thesaurus? What did you find there?" then do not answer that comment with another comment; instead, edit your question.

Here's an example; suppose you asked:

Another word for burning eyes
I was trying to describe an itchy, burning sensation in my eyes, but I don't like the word burning, because that brings to mind the eyeballs being on fire. What other word can I use?

And the first response was a comment, asking:

Did you look in a thesaurus? What did you find?

If you didn't look in a thesaurus, that would be a good time to go do so. But maybe you had looked in a thesaurus. Your first instinct might be to leave a comment like this:

Yes I did, but I didn't find anything suitable there.

I don't think that's a good idea, though. Why? If one user asked about a thesaurus, others will probably wonder about the same thing. So, a better thing to do would be to edit your question, showing your research to the rest of the community such that they can see it, without reading through all the comments underneath the question. Hence, your edited question might now look like this:

Another word for burning eyes
I was trying to describe an itchy, burning sensation in my eyes, but I don't like the word burning, because that brings to mind the eyeballs being on fire. What other word can I use?

I tried looking up burning in a thesaurus, but all the words there either had the same connotation of being literally on fire (such as flaming, fiery, glowing, smoldering, red-hot, fiery, blistering, scorching, searing, roasting, sizzling), or else they were words describing emotions, like being in love (e.g., passionate, ardent, fervent, urgent, fierce, eager, frantic, consuming, uncontrollable). None of these words seem to fit as a good alternative to burning, not when describing "itchy, burning eyes."

Do you see where that brings you, now that you've revised the question? Once again, it's hard for anyone to question your research; plus, it's easier for everyone to understand the context. I think that question – in its revised form – would receive both upvotes and helpful answers. Without that revision, though, most of the upvotes would probably go to the comment asking you, "Did you look in a thesaurus?"

In short, it's not just about what you ask, it's also about how you ask.

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This is an important question, and one I am glad to see raised.

I agree with every word of the responses so far — Inglish Teeture’s, J.R.'s and Bill Franke’s answers, and Edwin Ashworth’s comment.

I would like to add a word about tools for exploring synonyms. First, dictionaries. It is essential to consult multiple good dictionaries; for different dictionaries offer different perspectives. Here is a handy list of good dictionaries and similar references. And it is not enough merely to scan a dictionary entry; as I commented on your recent question, “The people who write dictionaries take great pains to ‘pack’ their meaning into a very few words, and it is often necessary for you to expend equal effort in ‘unpacking’ the meaning.”

Second, in line with Inglish Teeture’s advice to examine synonyms in context, I should like to recommend corpus.byu.edu, where there are several large corpora—searchable databases of language. By registering there (it’s free) you will be able to search those databases for occurrences of words in actual contexts, not made-up examples such as you find in textbooks and dictionaries. The sources of these uses are identified and classified—Fiction, Magazine, Newspaper, Academic, Spoken, and so forth—so you may get a sense not only of how but also when and where words are used. Each citation is twenty or thirty words long, and you may consult a longer passage from which it is extracted. And the number of citations is staggering; for instance, with respect to your own recent question, the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) reports almost 500 instances of derision and more than 3500 instances of contempt.

These won't solve all your problems, for there are subtleties they do not point out explicitly. And keep in mind that corpora do not distinguish between good use and bad. “Native speaker” does not mean “accomplished speaker”, and it is not true that whatever is said or written by a native speaker is de jure ‘correct’. Every native speaker gets one vote—no less, no more—on what constitutes ‘correct use’, and you will see a variety of opinions displayed in corpora and dictionaries. When those opinions appear contradictory, bring them here; I can assure you that if you fortify your questions with appropriate citations they will be not only accepted but applauded. (But be prepared to encounter a similar diversity of opinion here, too!)

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Google books is another good place to search for words or phrases in context. (I'd avoid the default Google web search – which will inevitably return several hits from bloggers who write rather shoddily.) –  J.R. Dec 25 '12 at 9:33
    
@J.R. In fact, Google Books is one of the corpora offered at BYU. Google web search, like Urban Dictionary, is a wonderful guide to the range of usage, good and bad; but as you say, not a useful one to the basic learner. I myself am less troubled by the naive usage of the semi-literate than by the corruptly sophisticated usage of the anti-literate: the marketers and rhetoricians, the people who skilfully employ my language as a tool for deception and half-truths. –  StoneyB Dec 25 '12 at 9:43
    
@StoneyB: Thanks for the information on research and reference tools. I was not aware of corpus.byu.edu so far. –  user32480 Dec 25 '12 at 10:08

One of these days, now that ELL has more than 160 commitments, the English Language Learners site will go into beta and that should (I hope it does) provide a friendlier atmosphere for asking questions about which synonyms are best in specific contexts and what the differences between putative synonyms are. Until then, I agree with Inglish Teeture's advice to "please search the site and make sure your questions are not duplicates". Also, provide specific and sufficiently complete contexts to allow us enough information to answer your questions. That means complete sentences and maybe even a brief paragraph for the sentence.

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Words have contextual meanings and that is how they need to be studied – contextually. While correct is a synonym of right in one sense, it is not in other senses of the word.

If you observe and study words according to their contextual meanings, learning synonyms won't be a big challenge. You need to do a lot of reading and listen to people speak in English. Unless you do that, what you pick up from dictionaries won't be of much help. Try building your own sentences with the new words you have learnt. And of course, communities like English.StackExchange.Com are great places to ask questions and clarify your doubts.

So, yes, you can ask questions here and get your doubts clarified. But please search the site and make sure your questions are not duplicates.

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It is not just that words have different senses, but even when we find words that are synonymous in a certain sense, they are often not interchangeable. Perhaps the concept of synonymy was introduced to many people using the examples contented and satisfied, but I've never heard the phrase 'satisfied cow/s'. 'Powerful tea' and a 'strong computer' aren't generally acceptable either - whereas 'strong tea' and 'powerful computer' are quite commonly used word-groupings or collocations. A dictionary of collocations is one source of information, but I. Teeture's advice is invaluable. –  Edwin Ashworth Dec 25 '12 at 8:06
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@EdwinAshworth Is 'milk from contented cows' still around? :-) –  StoneyB Dec 25 '12 at 9:45

I find that questions about synonym differences are very much on-topic here at ELU and not at all General Reference.

Most dictionaries will give definitions which an educated native speaker can check for correctness of the correct nuance (by the succinct choice of words in the definition), but on the whole dictionaries do not give a early learners the subtle, or even not so subtle, nuances that are obvious as learned by long time users of the language from prior contexts.

That said, your specific main-site questions tend to ask about too many synonyms at once. I think that it is simply a problem with scale; the larger the number of synonyms, the more likely a single answer will be able to answer well, giving rise to legitimate closing by Not Constructive.

Now to answer directly your questions here:

  • 1 - Can I ask questions about word differences to the community?

Yes. try to keep the complexity down to 2 or 3 words being compared.

  • 2 - If I can not what are the other sources which helps me?

A thesaurus, multiple dictionary lookups (ya gotta do research at some point), and looking at examples and context to get the nuance.

  • 3 - As a non native English speaker I can have difficulty to grasp the meaning. Such times can I ask community for more elaboration for any meaning?

Yes. Also chat is good for back and forth discussion for elaboration. Also, I find the multi-way conversations there to be very helpful for extricating nuances because people see different sides of the differences.

  • 4 - I have experienced some of users are very good in explaining such questions and some users feel these are not good questions. In such situations, can I directly ask the specific user about this question with polluting site and give the credit them once I got answer?

If they answer your question on the Q&A part, SE is already set up to give credit. You can't really give SE upvotes to someone without them already giving an official answer. If you ask otherwise (say in chat), then just thank them, that's credit enough.

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Yes, but what happens when the Christmas Truce expires on the Thirteenth Night? –  tchrist Dec 26 '12 at 17:02
    
@tchrist If OP hurries over to ELL and commits he will be able to participate in the private beta there, which it seems likely will be launched around Feb. 1. –  StoneyB Dec 26 '12 at 23:13

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