Инфоурок / Иностранные языки / Конспекты / Синонимы и антонимы в английском языке. Конспект.
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Синонимы и антонимы в английском языке. Конспект.


Synonyms and antonyms

Lexical units may also be classified by the criterion of semantic similarity and semantic polarity (contrasts). The terms used to denote these two types of semantic relations are synonymy and antonymy.

Synonyms are the words classified according to the similarity of meaning

Antonyms – according to the polarity of meaning


The word synonym comes from the Greek words syn-together, onyma-name

Criteria of Synonymy

Traditionally synonyms are defined as words different in sound form but identical or similar in meaning.

In Modern Linguistics this definition has been criticised on many points.

  1. It is impossible to speak of similar meaning of words as such, as this part of the definition can’t be applied to polysemantic words.

The verb to look is usually treated a s a synonym of to stare, to gaze, to watch, to observe.

In one meaning look can be the synonym of these words, but in another it can be a synonym of such words as to seem, to appear. E.g.This looks (=seems) more like a pond than like a lake.

  1. It seems impossible to speak of identity or similarity of lexical meaning as a whole as it is only the denotational component that may be described as identical or similar.

If we analyse words that are usually considered synonymous, e.g.to die, to pass away; to begin, to commence we find that the connotational component, or, to be more exact, the stylistic reference of these words is entirely different, and it is only the similarity of the denotational meaning that makes them synonymous.

  1. It doesn’t seem possible to speak of identity of meaning as a criterion of synonymy as identity of meaning is very rare even among monosemantic words.

  2. Attempts have been made to introduce into the definition of synonymity the criterion of interchangeability in linguistic contexts.This principle was put forward by Steven Ullman in his book “Principles of Semantics”.

Synonyms are defined as words which can replace each other in any context without the slightest alteration in denotational or connotational meaning.

The contextual approach has been criticised chiefly for the fact that words interchangeable in any given context are very rare and modern linguistics generally assume that there are no complete (absolute) synonyms. Words synonymous in some lexical contexts may be not synonymous in others.

Besides, it is difficult to accept interchangeability as a criterion of synonymy because thethe specific feature of synonyms is that they are not, can’t be and shouldn’t be interchangeable. Otherwise they would become useless.

Thus it seems necessary to modify the traditional definition and to formulate it as follows:

Synonyms are words different in their sound-form but similar in their denotational meaning or meanings and interchangeable at least in some contexts.

Sources of Synonymy
  1. Borrowings.

  2. Words that come from dialects

  3. Word-forming processes

  4. Shift of meaning, new combinations of verbs with postpositives and compound nouns formed from them, shortenings, set expressions and conversion.

The majority of linguists who studied synonymy in the past focused their attention on the prominent part of foreign loan words in English synonymy, e. g. freedom : : liberty or heaven : : sky, where the first elements are native and the second, French and Scandinavian respectively. O. Jespersen and many others used to stress that the English language is peculiarly rich in synonyms, because Britons, Romans, Saxons, Danes and Normans fighting and settling upon the soil of the British Isles could not but influence each other’s speech. British scholars studied Greek and Latin and for centuries used Latin as a medium for communication on scholarly topics.

Synonymy has its characteristic patterns in each language. Its peculiar feature in English is the contrast between simple native words stylistically neutral, literary words borrowed from French and learned words of Greco-Latin origin. This results in a sort of stylistically conditioned triple “keyboard” that can be illustrated by the following:

Native English


Words borrowed

from French

Words borrowed

from Latin

to ask

to question

to interrogate




to gather

to assemble

to collect




to end

to finish

to complete

to rise

to mount

to ascend




English also uses many pairs of synonymous derivatives, the one Hellenic and the other Romance, e. g. periphery : : circumference; hypothesis : : supposition; sympathy : : compassion; synthesis : : composition.

The pattern of stylistic relationship represented in the above table, although typical, is by no means universal. For example, the native words dale, deed, fair are the poetic equivalents of their much more frequent borrowed synonyms valley, act or the hybrid beautiful.

The important thing to remember is that it is not only borrowings from foreign languages but other sources as well that have made increasing contributions to the stock of English synonyms.

II. There are, for instance, words that come from dialects, and, in the last hundred years, from American English in particular. As a result speakers of British English may make use of both elements of the following pairs, the first element in each pair coming from the USA: gimmick : : trick; dues : : subscription; long distance (telephone) call : : trunk call; radio : : wireless. There are also synonyms that originate in numerous dialects as, for instance, clover : : shamrock; liquor : : whiskey (from Irish); girl : : lass, lassie or charm : : glamour (from Scottish).

III. Synonyms are also created by means of all word-forming processes productive in the language at a given time of its history. The words already existing in the language develop new meanings. New words may be formed by affixation or loss of affixes, by conversion, compounding, shortening and so on, and being coined, form synonyms to those already in use. E.g. very many compound nouns denoting abstract notions, persons and events are formed as synonyms to somewhat lengthy borrowed terms. There are, for instance, such synonymic pairs as arrangement : : layout; conscription : : call-up; precipitation : : fall-out; regeneration : : feedback; reproduction : : playback; resistance : : fight-back; treachery : : sell-out.

IV. Of special importance for those who are interested in the present-day trends and characteristic peculiarities of the English vocabulary are the synonymic oppositions due to shift of meaning, new combinations of verbs with postpositives and compound nouns formed from them, shortenings, set expressions and conversion.

  1. Phrasal verbs consisting of a verb with a postpositive are widely used in present-day English and may be called one of its characteristic features. Many verbal synonymic groups contain such combinations as one of their elements. A few examples will illustrate this statement: choose : : pick out; abandon : : give up; continue : : go on; enter : : come in; lift : : pick up; postpone : : put off; quarrel : : fall out; return : : bring back. E.g.: By the way, Toby has quite given up the idea of doing those animal cartoons (Plomer).

  2. Quite frequently synonyms, mostly stylistic, but sometimes ideographic as well, are due to shortening, e. g. memorandum : : memo; vegetables : : vegs; margarine : : marge; microphone : : mike; popular (song) : : pop (song).

  3. Conversion may also be a source of synonymy; it accounts for such pairs as commandment : : command; laughter : : laugh. The problem in this connection is whether such cases should be regarded as synonyms or as lexical variants of one and the same word. It seems more logical to consider them as lexical variants. Compare also cases of different affixation: anxiety : : anxiousness; effectivity : : effectiveness, and loss of affixes: amongst : : among or await : : wait.

Classification of Synonyms

The only existing classification system for synonyms was established by Academician Victor Vladimirovich Vinogradov, the famous Russian sholar.


Some aspects of this classification are open to criticism (see Antrushina G.B. English Lexicology. P.192)

Some modern linguists (professor Arnold) think that absolute sunonyms are very rare in vocabulary. The tendency for them is to change their meaning and drop off the language.

Words of the same meaning would be useless for communication and the phenomenon of absolute synonymy may be considered temporary.

The authors of “A Course in Modern English Lexicology” (RSGinsburg among them) subdivide synonyms into purely ideographic (or denotational) and ideographic stylistic synonyms.

Another classification is based on the definition describing synonyms as words differing in connotations. It classifies types of connotation by which synonyms differ. (see Antrushina G.B. English Lexicology. Pp.193-197))

  1. The connotation of degree (to surprise- to astonish)

  2. The connotation of duration (to stare-to glance)

  3. Emotive connotation (tremble-shudder)

  4. Evaluative connotation (famous-notorious)

  5. Causative connotation (blush-redden)

  6. The connotation of manner (to pace-to stagger-to stroll)

  7. The connotation of attendant circumstances (peep-peer)

  8. The connotation of attendant features

  9. Stylistic connotation (snack, bite-feast)

Synonyms are combined into synonymic groups and the word with the centrsal meaning is called the dominant synonym.

To surprise- to astonish—to amaze-to astound

To tremble-to shiver-to shudder-to shake


The dominant synonym expresses the notion common to all synonyms of the group in the most general way.

Synonyms may be used as one of the very important means of creation of the stylistic effects of speech. They are treated as expressive means in the language. Their principal function is to represent the same phenomenon in different aspects, in different variations.

There is a special source of synonymy worth mentioning. It is euphemisms in which by a shift of meaning a pleasant word substitutes a rude, too direct or impolite one.

Euphemisms are used either to avoid social taboos or superstitious fears or not to hurt smb’s feelings.

Such topics as pregnancy, eating, mental diseases, death and fatal diseases are considered “delicate”.

Euphemisms for pregnant: in an interesting condition, in a delicate condition, in the family way, with a baby coming

To die – to pass away, to be taken, to breathe one’s last, to close one’s eyes, to kick the bucket (sl), to join the majority (sl)


Are defined as words belonging to the same part of speech, identical in style, expressing contrary or contradictory notions.

Antonyms are words different in sound form characterised by different types of semantic contrast of the denotational meaning and interchangeable at least in some contexts.

Hot-cold, love-hatred, up-down, now-then

If synonyms form groups, antonyms make up pairs.

Most antonyms are adjectives: high-low, wide-narrow, old-young

Verbs take the 2nd place: to live-to die, open-close, understand-misunderstand

Nouns are not rich in antonyms: friend-enemy, good-evil, joy-grief, heaven-earth, love-hatred

Antonymic adverbs: warmly-coldly, here-there, now-then

V.N.Comissarov in his dictionary of antonyms classified them into two groups: absolute or root antonyms (late-early) and derivational antonyms (to please-to displease, honest-dishonest, regular-irregular).

Absolute antonyms have different roots and derivational antonyms have the same roots but different affixes. In most cases negative prefixes form antonyms (un-, dis-, поп-). Sometimes they are formed by means of antonymous suffixes -/u/and -less (painful — painless).

The number of antonyms with the suffixes ful- and less- is not very large, and sometimes even if we have a word with one of these suf­fixes its antonym is formed not by substituting -ful by - less, e.g. successful - unsuccessful (the antonym of the adjective with the suffix -ful is formed by means of the prefix un-), selfless - selfish (the antonym of the adjective with the suffix - less is formed with the help of the suffix -ish ). The same is true about antonyms with negative prefixes, e.g. to man is not an antonym of the word to unman, to disappoint is not an antonym of the word to appoint.

The difference between derivational and root antonyms is not only in their structure, but in semantics as well. Derivational antonyms express contradictory notions, one of them excludes the other, e.g. active - inactive. Absolute antonyms express contrary notions. If some notions can be arranged in a group of more than two members, the most distant members of the group will be absolute antonyms, e.g. ugly, plain, good-looking, pretty, beautiful, the antonyms are ugly and beautiful.

Leonard Lipka in the book Outline of English Lexicology describes different types of oppositeness, and subdivides them into three types:

  1. complementarity, e.g. male -female, married - single,

  2. antonyms, e.g. good-bad,

  3. converseness, e.g. to buy - to sell.

In his classification he describes comple­mentarity in the following way: the denial of the one implies the assertion of the other, and vice versa. John is not married implies that John is single. The type of oppositeness is based on yes/no decision. Incompatibility only concerns pairs of lexical units.

Antonymy is the second class of opposite­ness. It is distinguished from complementarity by being based on different logical relation­ships. For pairs of antonyms like good /bad, big/small only the second one of the above mentioned relations of implication holds. The assertion containing one member implies the negation of the other, but not vice versa. John is good implies that John is not bad, but John is not good does not imply that John is bad. The negation of one term does not necessarily implies the assertion of the other.

An important linguistic difference from complementaries is that antonyms are always fully gradable, e.g. hot, warm, tepid, cold.

Converseness is mirror-image relations or functions, e.g. husband/wife, pupil/teacher, precede/follow, above/below, before/after etc.John bought the car from Bill implies that Bill sold the car to John. Mirror-image sentences are in many ways similar to the relations between active and passive sentences. Also in the comparative form: Y is smaller than X, then X is larger than Y.

L. Lipka also gives the type which he calls directional opposition up/down, consequence opposition learn/know, antipodal opposition North/South, East/West (it is based on con­trary motion, in opposite directions). The pairs come/go, arrive/depart involve motion in different directions. In the case up/down we have movement from a certain point. In the case come/go we have movement from or to the speaker.

L. Lipka also points out non-binary con­trast or many-member lexical sets. Here he points out serially ordered sets, such as scales {hot, warm, tepid, cool, cold); colour words {black, grey, white); military ranks {marshal, general, colonel, major, captain etc). There are gradable examination marks {excellent, good, average, fair, poor). In such sets of words we can have outer and inner pairs of antonyms. He also points out cycles, such as units of time {spring, summer, autumn, winter). In this case there are no outermost members.

Not every word in a language can have antonyms. This type of opposition can be met in qualitative adjectives and their derivatives,

e.g. beautiful - ugly, to beautify - to uglify, beauty - ugliness. It can be also met in words denoting feelings and states, e.g. respect -scorn, to respect - to scorn, respectful - scorn­ful, to live - to die, alive - dead, life - death. It can be also met among words denoting direction in space and time, e.g. here - there, up - down, now - never, before - after, day -night, early - late etc.

If a word is polysemantic, it can have sever­al antonyms, e.g. the word bright has the antonyms dim, dull, sad.

Antonyms represent the language expressive means. Their main stylistic function is to create contrast.

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