Exact Synonyms: Do They Exist?

Erin McKean has a nice piece in the Boston Globe on spelling variations and people’s tendency to assign slightly different meanings to variants; an omelette, to use one of McKean’s examples, is considered by some to be tastier and a finer dining experience than a mere omelet. (It might be interesting to see a study of the spellings of omelet/te in various restaurant menus, coded for economic scale, from greasy spoons to 5-star restaurants to see if this particular distinction is generally made.)

Beyond just variant spellings though, it is common for individuals and particular groups to apply very precise meanings to certain words; an artilleryman, for example, will go to great lengths to tell you difference between a howitzer and a gun (a howitzer is a low-velocity, high-trajectory weapon used for indirect fire, while a gun is a high-velocity, low-trajectory weapon and is often used in a direct fire mode where the gunner can see his target), and ichthyologists use the plural forms fish and fishes differently (fish is many individuals; fishes is many species). But to the random person on the street, there is no difference between fish and fishes, and howitzers are guns (although not all guns are howitzers).

There is nothing wrong with making such distinctions in your writing. Just don’t assume that your readers (or the author if you are the one doing the reading) make the same distinction. In general usage, such words are interchangeable and relying on your particular distinction being commonly understood is a sure road to misunderstanding.

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