Post initiated on 3/10/08.
I remember during high school we were encouraged to look for and use synonyms in our essays in order to have a greater variety of words, and for the sake of style. (Repetition of words was frowned upon.)
But now that I've gotten older and learned a bit more since then, I have doubts as to whether this is a good practice for beginning writers, especially if the synonyms do not have the same exact meaning, but have subtle or perhaps significant differences? It seems obvious that we should be careful when we use words that are directly tied to sense experience and refer specifically to some thing or some aspect of a thing. But such care is necessary with 'abstractions' as well. To be 'fair' may not be the same as to be 'just,' and neither may be identical with being 'equitable.'
If we ignore distinctions in meaning, do we not end up impoverishing the written culture rather than enrichening it? After all, when we are writing to others, especially those who are not as learned, they may acquire the same sort of sloppiness in language and thinking as a result of reading what we write. At the same time, our own vocabulary suffers.
But what should we expect when much of our 'learning' is tied to what we read and our imagination, instead of direct contact with reality through our senses? Our names are tied to representations in books and visual media, rather than to the things themselves.