Choosing the right word
Si je mets bleues après pierres, c’est que bleues est le mot juste, croyez-moi.
letter to Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve (1862)
The first part of this book focused on some of the more technical aspects of grammar and usage in English. In this second part, we move away from such analytic considerations and turn to words themselves — that is, words as used creatively by writers for the purposes of expression. This means thinking about the meaning and resonance of words, and the nuances that shape the writer’s intended effect.
English has one of the richest and largest vocabularies of the world’s languages, owing partly to its historically having come under many linguistic influences — whether Germanic, French or Latin, or broader global ones.
It may be true that no two English words have precisely the same meaning. Certainly, many words overlap in sense, and convey notions that are similar but with marginally different emphases. Such words are known as synonyms and can be found in a thesaurus, a tool often recommended for exploring words and finding inspiration for, or more likely reminding oneself of, alternative modes of expression.
In this chapter, we list sets of words that have shared meanings but are used slightly differently. The sets are divided into three main word classes — adjectives, nouns and verbs. Writers may find these interesting to browse in pursuit of fresh and varied language for their purposes — ideally, the below might even trigger some happy instances of lighting upon exactly the right word, or mot juste.
Choosing the right adjective
More than any other type of word, ADJECTIVES (see chapter 1, here) enable the description of fine shades of meaning. They are not the largest class of words in English, but they probably feature the most variants, so having a wide selection of them at one’s fingertips is vital to being able to fine-tune speech and writing. Below are sets of adjectives whose meanings closely overlap. Each adjective is briefly defined, and then examples are given of how it is used.
Most adjectives have a corresponding adverbial form ending in -ly. If so, the adverb usually has the same nuances of meaning as its related adjective. For example, quiet → quietly; stealthy → stealthily; stoic → stoically. Adjectives also often have a corresponding noun, again with the same shades of meaning, ending perhaps with -ness, -ity or -cy. For example, naked → nakedness; efficient → efficiency; fragile → fragility.
aware, cognizant, conscious, mindful, sensible
having knowledge of the existence of something
aware knowing something either intellectually or intuitively • I wasn’t aware of any problem. • The leadership is well aware of the current situation. • I wasn’t aware that I was sitting in the wrong seat until I saw people nudge each other.
cognizant (formal) having knowledge of something • make people cognizant of the fact that the committee’s decision will be final
conscious fully appreciating the importance of something • conscious of the need to make progress • He was conscious that his predecessor had not lasted long in the job, so he was acting cautiously.
mindful actively attentive, or deliberately keeping something in mind • mindful of the need to proceed cautiously • mindful that the younger children would have to be watched carefully
sensible (formal) keenly aware of something • We are very sensible of the fairness of your offer.
bad, criminal, delinquent, mischievous, naughty
guilty of wrongdoing or disruptive behaviour
bad term that may apply to a whole range of wrongdoing, from the most trivial to the most immoral or evil, though usually reserved for the less serious • He’s a nice little boy, not so bad, really. • His lie did not seem very bad at the time, but it later came back to haunt him.
criminal punishable as a crime under the law • Their driving was at best incompetent and at worst downright criminal. • criminal behaviour
delinquent antisocial or unlawful, or (formal) neglectful of a duty, commitment or responsibility • Most of the delinquent youngsters with whom I worked did not need to be involved in antisocial activity. • We had two types of delinquent taxpayers: those who could not pay on time owing to hardship, and those who refused to pay in response to poor services.
mischievous playfully naughty or troublesome, or (formal) causing or meant to cause little serious trouble, damage or hurt • She was just normal — active, sports-loving, fun-loving, a little mischievous.
naughty mildly badly behaved or disobedient, or (humorous) mildly indecent or sinful • my naughty little cousin splashed in the bath • a set of naughty postcards
careful, conscientious, scrupulous, thorough, meticulous, painstaking, assiduous, punctilious, finicky, fussy
exercising care and attention in doing something
careful wide-ranging term, suggesting attention to detail and implying cautiousness in avoiding errors or inaccuracies • The project was given approval after careful consideration. • the result of some very careful planning
conscientious showing great care, attention and industriousness in carrying out a task or role • a very conscientious secretary • Are you always so conscientious about keeping promises?
scrupulous having or showing careful regard for what is morally right, or for correct procedure • draw up the sheet with scrupulous care • I will be absolutely scrupulous in not favouring one candidate when I moderate the debate.
thorough extremely careful and accurate • a thorough search • a thorough understanding of programming principles
meticulous extremely careful and precise • meticulous attention to detail • She pasted the reviews with meticulous care into her scrapbook.
painstaking involving or showing great care and attention to detail • years of painstaking research • a lengthy and painstaking investigation
assiduous undeviating in effort and care • They paid assiduous attention to the sorting of each submission as the contestants registered. • He is assiduous in ensuring compliance with the law.
punctilious very careful about the conventions of correct behaviour and etiquette • She was usually very punctilious about telling her mother if she was going to be late. • He has always been punctilious in the exercise of his duties.
finicky difficult to please, and tending to concentrate on small or unimportant details • He was finicky about how his fish was seasoned. • finicky car buyers
fussy tending to worry over details or trivial things • The dog isn’t all that fussy about where he naps. • She’s got a right to be fussy about the seating plan for the state dinner.
cautious, careful, chary, circumspect, prudent, vigilant, wary, guarded, cagey
attentive to risk or danger
cautious aware of potential risk and behaving accordingly • his cautious approach to economic reform • Years of army training had taught her to be cautious when faced with an unknown situation.
careful taking reasonable care to avoid risks • Be very careful when you withdraw money from an ATM in full public view. • I was extra careful not to make any mistakes.
chary cautiously reluctant to act • Why had Janet been so chary of telling us where she had gone?
circumspect taking into consideration all possible consequences of an action and so unwilling to take risks • Both men offered only circumspect answers to my questions. • Government officials were circumspect about the incident.
prudent showing good judgement or shrewdness • prudent financial planning for foreseeable expenses • It’s certainly prudent to use sunscreen if you are out in the midday sun.
vigilant alert and conscious of possible dangers • Doctors are urging the public to be vigilant about the virus. • A vigilant neighbour foiled the attempted burglary.
wary showing watchfulness or suspicion • She was always wary of dogs. • People were becoming more wary about voicing their opinions in public.
guarded reluctant to share information with others • He was guarded, and there was a note of scepticism in his tone. • Her responses to these personal questions were heavily guarded.
cagey (informal) secretive and giving little away • She was cagey about why she had rejected the offer. • Asked by a comparative stranger about his personal finances, he was understandably and sensibly cagey.
cowardly, faint-hearted, spineless, gutless, pusillanimous, craven, chicken
lacking in courage
cowardly lacking in courage, or caused by a lack of courage • too cowardly to admit his mistake • a wicked and cowardly attack
faint-hearted timid and lacking in resolve • The industry’s huge International Spring Show is not for the faint-hearted.
spineless seriously lacking willpower or strength of character • The prime minister was criticised as spineless over his U-turn. • too spineless to stand up to their boss
gutless seriously lacking in courage and determination • They’re too gutless to oppose the measure in public.
pusillanimous showing a contemptible degree of cowardice • The general could not of course tolerate pusillanimous conduct in battle.
craven showing a contemptible degree of cowardice and weakness of will • an act of craven stupidity • a craven surrender to pressure
chicken (informal, often used by children and young people) cowardly, or too scared to do a specific thing • The boy refused to climb the tree, and got called chicken by the other kids.
dead, deceased, departed, late, lifeless, defunct, extinct
no longer living, functioning or in existence
dead term describing organisms that are no longer alive, physical objects that no longer function or exist, and abstract entities that are no longer valid or relevant • He was dead before his body hit the floor. • The car battery was dead.
deceased (formal, restricted to people, especially in legal or other technical contexts, or as a euphemism) no longer living • the heirs of a deceased partner • His grandmother, now deceased, hailed from Yorkshire.
departed (literary, restricted to people) no longer living • the soul of our dear departed brother
late (restricted to people) having died recently or within living memory • the late George Burns
lifeless not living, or apparently not living • They lay lifeless in the snow. • They found the deer cold and seemingly lifeless.
defunct no longer operative, valid or functional, or no longer in existence • attempts to revive a defunct ceasefire • former editor-in-chief of a now defunct newspaper
extinct no longer in existence, or no longer active • an animal that was declared extinct in 1936 • small houses clinging to the lower slopes of extinct volcanoes
dirty, filthy, grubby, grimy, soiled, squalid, unclean
dirty marked by dirt or covered in dirt • Diesel engines have very dirty exhaust emissions. • That year, over a million children died from diarrhoea spread by dirty water.
filthy extremely or disgustingly dirty • Just look at your shoes — they’re filthy! • I was flung into a filthy cell with a lot of other poor wretches.
grubby slightly dirty • a rather grubby handkerchief • Travelling always made her feel grubby.
grimy heavily ingrained with accumulated dirt • the faint light from a grimy window • Her face was grimy with tears.
soiled stained or marked, especially during normal use • soiled linen • His white shirt was a little soiled.
squalid unsanitary and unpleasant • living in squalid conditions • She lived alone in a squalid boarding house.
unclean dirty or impure, especially in moral or religious contexts • casting out unclean spirits from people • unclean political battles
doubtful, uncertain, unsure, in doubt, dubious, sceptical
feeling doubt or uncertainty
doubtful undecided or feeling hesitant • The council was doubtful that the public would want to pay for the changes. • She felt doubtful that their next date would be any more interesting than their first one had been.
uncertain or unsure lacking certainty or confidence • She seemed uncertain of her English, and asked for everything to be repeated. • Some of the biggest names in investment banking are unsure about the future of the economy.
in doubt feeling uncertain • When in doubt, the jury must acquit and not convict. • If the umpires are in any doubt about what to do, they consult with the referee.
dubious doubtful and, often, suspicious • The Mayor was dubious about exactly what the new alliance planned to do with the funding. • The food at the back of the refrigerator looked distinctly dubious.
sceptical questioning the truth or likelihood of something • Most people are sceptical about get-rich-quick schemes. • I remained highly sceptical about the results of the survey.
dry, dehydrated, desiccated, arid, parched, shrivelled
dry having little or no moisture • prolonged periods of hot, dry weather • Use an exfoliating cream to remove patches of dry skin.
dehydrated experiencing fluid loss, or preserved by drying • They were seriously dehydrated after five days without food or water. • instant foods such as oatmeal and dehydrated soup
desiccated (used of products, especially food) free from moisture, or preserved by drying • desiccated coconut
arid (used pertaining to land) dry from lack of rain • a plant that grows in hot, arid climates • the arid Red Sea coast
parched dry from excessive heat or lack of rain • My throat was parched. • the recent floods in this usually parched region
shrivelled dry, shrunken and wrinkled • an unwatered plant with sad, shrivelled leaves • His skin was shrivelled like a dried apple.
effective, efficient, effectual, efficacious
producing a result
effective causing a result, especially the desired or intended result • an effective solution to the water supply problem
efficient capable of achieving the desired result with the minimum use of resources, time and effort • an efficient use of personnel
effectual (formal) potentially successful in producing a desired or intended result • The two countries need to reach an effectual understanding.
efficacious (formal) having the power to achieve the desired result, especially an improvement in someone’s physical condition • Diet may be as efficacious as medication in controlling the condition.
fragile, delicate, frail, flimsy, frangible
easily broken or damaged
fragile not having a strong structure or not made of robust materials, and therefore easily broken or damaged • protected by a fragile wooden structure • an ecologically fragile area
delicate similar to fragile; used especially of things that are beautiful or remarkable because of their fragility • a delicate lace fabric • delicate fernlike foliage
frail too easily damaged, or not likely to survive rough treatment • Only one frail hope remained.
flimsy weak and too easily broken, or thin and easily torn • The bottom fell out of the flimsy carton. • a flimsy folding chair
frangible (technical) brittle, or designed to be easily broken • glass and other frangible products • frangible aluminium masts
funny, comic, comical, droll, facetious, humorous, witty, hilarious
causing or intended to cause amusement
funny causing amusement, especially enough to provoke laughter • funny spontaneous banter • He realised the ad was trying to be funny, but it went beyond good taste.
comic used in the same way as funny, especially to describe books, poems or plays • a comic actor • a comic novel about the difficulties of being different
comical funny to the extent of being absurd, especially if unintentional • Their dismay was almost comical. • had a comical rolling walk
droll funny because it is playful or odd, or dryly humorous • a droll description of a new recruit who had arrived that day
facetious supposed to be funny but ill-timed, inappropriate or silly • Don’t try to be facetious; it doesn’t suit you. • a facetious remark that seemed disrespectful
humorous intended to make people laugh • He could keep people entertained with a seemingly endless fund of jokes and humorous anecdotes.
witty using words in a clever, inventive, humorous way • He gave a witty account of their first date. • It is not just informative, but presented in a witty fashion.
hilarious extremely funny • Just when you think you’re in for a standard ending, the play surprises you with a hilarious twist.
generous, liberal, magnanimous, munificent, bountiful
giving readily to others
generous willing to give money, help or time freely • I was deeply touched by her generous gift. • I’ve seen how generous he is with his time and what an inspiration he is to young writers.
liberal free with money, time or other assets • During her lifetime, she was a liberal benefactor to public institutions.
magnanimous very generous, kind or forgiving • She gave him the disputed point in a magnanimous gesture of fair play. • It is easy to be magnanimous when you have been as fortunate in life as I have.
munificent very generous, especially on a grand scale • She received a munificent sum for books written and yet to be written.
bountiful (literary) generous, particularly to less fortunate people • The company was bountiful in its donations to charity.
hard, difficult, strenuous, tough, arduous, laborious
requiring effort or exertion
hard requiring mental or physical effort or exertion • The work was always hard and sometimes dangerous. • It is hard to imagine Paula being afraid of anything.
difficult requiring considerable planning or effort • Some of the questions on this paper are too difficult for the children. • Improvements in this area may turn out to be the most difficult to achieve.
strenuous requiring physical effort, energy, stamina or strength • strenuous physical activity • Let’s have those who are the fittest do the more strenuous tasks.
tough requiring great effort or strength, often emotionally • Tough decisions await the administration, not least over public spending. • It will be tough for him on his own, but I think he’ll cope.
arduous requiring hard work or continuous physical effort • a long, arduous task • He left the comforts of the town to make the arduous journey into the interior.
laborious requiring unwelcome, often boring, effort and hard work • slow, laborious hand-picking of fruit • Producing charts and graphs without the appropriate software is a laborious process.
impassive, apathetic, phlegmatic, stolid, stoic, unmoved
showing no emotional response or interest
impassive showing no outward sign of emotion, especially on the face • a rare smile that transformed his usually impassive face • The defendant was impassive as the jury announced its verdict.
apathetic not taking any interest in anything, or not bothering to do anything • The political turmoil has left voters apathetic.
phlegmatic generally unemotional and difficult to arouse • Although she was disappointed at the news, her response was phlegmatic.
stolid solemn, unemotional, and not easily excited or upset • He was a stolid, dignified judge, who spoke in deliberate and measured tones.
stoic showing admirable patience and endurance in the face of adversity without complaining or getting upset • a stoic acceptance of the lack of job security in the industry • He was a stoic child, unfazed by the hospital’s procedures.
unmoved showing no emotion, surprise or excitement when it would normally be expected • The country’s head of state appeared unmoved by widespread international criticism of her policies. • His desperate pleading left her unmoved.
intelligent, bright, quick, smart, clever, able, gifted
having the ability to learn and understand easily
intelligent having a highly developed ability to learn facts and skills and apply them • a highly intelligent group of engineers • We’re looking for trainees who are intelligent, inquisitive and passionate about their work.
bright showing an ability to think, learn or respond quickly, especially used of younger people • He’s a bright and unusually focused little boy. • lucky to work with a team of very bright colleagues
quick alert, perceptive and able to respond quickly • She’s quick: you’ll only need to explain it to her once.
smart (informal) showing intelligence and mental alertness • too smart to be taken in by the hype • He’s smart, but he should have listened to their advice.
clever having sharp mental abilities, sometimes suggesting showy or suspect motives • As a bridge player, he’s very clever at anticipating his opponents’ moves. • clever use of the media to gain public sympathy
able capable or talented • an exceptionally able manager who gets results from her team
gifted talented, especially artistically or creatively; also used in educational circles of children who are exceptionally intelligent • acclaimed as an exceptionally gifted pianist from the time of his first solo recital • take on the challenge of teaching the gifted students
legal, lawful, decriminalised, legalised, legitimate, licit
permitted, recognised or required by law
legal established or allowed under the law • It is perfectly legal to charge a reasonable interest rate on unpaid accounts. • Your spouse will still have a legal right to inherit from you.
lawful a less common word meaning legal • The rate increases were found to be reasonable under the regulations and therefore lawful. • He believed he had lawful authority to be on the property.
decriminalised no longer categorised as a criminal offence • Possession of marijuana in small amounts is decriminalised in the Netherlands.
legalised to create a new law declaring something to be legal • casino-style and other legalised gambling
legitimate correct according to the law, or having official status defined by law • The bill of sale is your proof that you sold your old car in a legitimate business transaction. • He was declared the king’s legitimate heir.
licit (formal) a rarely used word meaning legal • Laws vary for licit and illicit drugs.
living, alive, animate, extant
having life or existence
living having life; not dead or non-existent • Deserts harbour very few living things. • one of our greatest living film stars
alive not dead, or (of inanimate things) still in existence • Is your granddad still alive? • An inspiring teacher, he kept Latin alive at a time when it had ceased to be taught in many schools.
animate used especially to distinguish living animals and plants from inanimate objects such as rocks, water or buildings • The pronoun ’they’ may refer to animate beings, or to objects.
extant still in existence or alive; surviving • The crypt is the earliest extant part of the cathedral.
lucky, fortunate, happy, providential, serendipitous
experiencing or relating to advantage or good fortune
lucky bringing or experiencing success or advantage, especially when this seems to happen by chance • You’re lucky she didn’t see you do that.
fortunate bringing or experiencing unexpectedly great success or advantage • I feel very fortunate to have such great colleagues.
happy resulting in something pleasant or welcome • By a happy coincidence, we already knew each other.
providential happening at a favourable time • It was providential that a runner happened to pass just at that moment.
serendipitous favourable and happening entirely by chance • Our serendipitous discovery of the chemical’s medicinal properties led us to the patent office.
mean, nasty, vile, low, base, ignoble
below normal standards of decency
mean unkind or malicious • All he does is give me a hard time. He’s got to be the meanest man I’ve ever had the misfortune to work for.
nasty showing spitefulness, malice or ill-nature • She’s got a nasty streak, a nasty snide way of putting people down.
vile despicable or shameful • a vile exploiter of his fellow human beings • a vile thing to say
low without principles or morals • How could he be so low as to make political mileage out of last week’s tragedy?
base (formal) lacking proper social values or moral principles • appeal to people’s baser instincts
ignoble dishonourable and contrary to the high standards of conduct expected • When even our best and brightest behave so ignobly, we face a bleak future indeed.
moving, pathetic, pitiful, poignant, touching, heart-warming, heartrending
moving causing deep feelings, especially of sadness or compassion • a very moving description of life for children in these orphanages • the deeply moving funeral of a friend who had died young
pathetic arousing feelings of compassion and pity, often centred on someone who is vulnerable, helpless or unfortunate • There was a pathetic dignity about the old mare as she stood there, patient and undemanding. • He looked so pathetic: cold, frightened and alone.
pitiful arousing compassion and pity, or arousing contempt or derision • a picture of a pitiful starving kitten • a pitiful sum of money
poignant causing strong, often bittersweet feelings of sadness, pity or regret • the opera’s most poignant moment • The girl died just three days after our poignant pictures were taken.
touching causing feelings of warmth, sympathy and tenderness • He has been a tremendous support to me and my family in many small and touching ways. • You have a touching faith in your employer’s generosity!
heart-warming inspiring warm or kindly feelings, usually by showing life and human nature in a positive and reassuring light • It is heart-warming that so many youngsters would like to see older members of society enjoying a better standard of living. • The former director recently found a heart-warming way to repay his childhood nanny — he helped build her a new house.
heartrending causing intense sadness or distress, especially arousing sympathy for someone else’s suffering or hardship • heartrending handmade posters depicting victims who are still missing • These refugees often have heartrending stories to tell.
naked, bare, nude, undressed, unclothed
devoid of clothes or covering
naked not covered or concealed, especially having no clothing on any part of the body • a ceiling decorated with frescoes of naked cherubs
bare without the usual furnishings or decorations, or not covered by clothing • The three men sat around a bare wooden table. • have bare legs in summer
nude not wearing any clothes at all, especially in artistic contexts • the nude statue in the courtyard
undressed not wearing any or many clothes, used especially when clothes have just been removed or are about to be put on • The children were undressed and ready to put on their nightclothes.
unclothed wearing little or no clothing • a window full of unclothed mannequins • He felt awkwardly unclothed in just a towel.
necessary, essential, vital, indispensable, requisite, needed
describes something that is required
necessary required to achieve a desired result, or by authority or convention • Our son says he’ll get a bank loan if necessary. • Repairs are necessary to ensure everyone’s health and safety.
essential of the highest importance for achieving something • The essential things for a good meal are one tasty ingredient and some imagination. • It is essential that a social worker review the home environment before the patient’s discharge.
vital extremely important to the survival or continuing effectiveness of something • The MP’s support for the negotiations was vital to their success. • The neighbourhood watch has a vital role to play in reducing crime.
indispensable essential, or extremely desirable or useful • No one is truly indispensable, although it is hard to get ahead without a trusted second-in-command. • Online resources have become almost indispensable to history teachers.
requisite (formal) necessary for a specific purpose • The UN resolution fell only four votes short of achieving the requisite two-thirds majority. • We ended up rejecting the majority of applicants because they didn’t have the requisite skills.
needed required or desired • Further research is needed to confirm these findings.
new, novel, innovative, fresh, newfangled, original
never experienced before or having recently come into being
new recently invented, discovered, made, bought, experienced, or not previously known or encountered • new research in AI technologies • over 125,000 species of flora and fauna, many of which were entirely new to science
novel new and different, often in an interesting, unusual or inventive way • The company came up with a novel idea for reaching coffee drinkers. • The bank will pioneer a novel way of detecting credit crime.
innovative new and creative, especially in the way something is done • a programme to support flexible, innovative transport alternatives
fresh excitingly or refreshingly different from what has been done or experienced previously • I want a completely fresh approach. • a fresh start in a different city
newfangled puzzlingly or worryingly new or different, especially seeming gimmicky or overcomplicated • one of those newfangled small cameras that do almost everything for you • A traditionalist at heart, he is wary of newfangled ideas.
original unique and not derived from anything else •When we analysed the report more closely, we realised that the ideas were not so original after all.• Leonardo da Vinci’s highly original use of light
obscure, abstruse, recondite, arcane, cryptic, enigmatic
difficult to understand
obscure difficult to understand because it is expressed in a complicated way or because it involves areas of knowledge or study that are not known to most people • a rather obscure branch of mathematics called graph theory • a notion that may at first seem somewhat obscure
abstruse not easy to understand, often because it involves specialist knowledge or is expressed in specialist language • academic books with abstruse titles • He is so occupied with abstruse ideas that he is incapable of coping with everyday activities.
recondite requiring a high degree of scholarship or specialist knowledge to be understood • an excellent professor with an obvious knowledge of an often recondite subject
arcane requiring information that is secret, or known only to a few people, in order to be understood • The current pay structure is arcane and outdated. • arcane symbols were drawn around the entrance to the ancient tomb
cryptic deliberately mysterious or ambiguous and seeming to have a hidden meaning • cryptic clues • a fax worded in cryptic language so that others could not understand
enigmatic having a quality of mystery and ambiguity that makes it difficult to understand or interpret • the enigmatic smile of the Mona Lisa
esoteric understood by or intended for only an initiated few • dictionaries for more esoteric or specialist domains • an esoteric lecture about the origins of black holes
old-fashioned, outdated, antiquated, archaic, obsolete, passé, antediluvian
no longer in current use or no longer considered fashionable
old-fashioned no longer considered fashionable or suitable because of changes in taste or technology, or nostalgically favouring or maintaining the style of a former time • They had very old-fashioned notions of gender.
outdated no longer relevant to modern life because it has been superseded by something better, more fashionable, or more technologically advanced • With the advent of streaming, my old CD player is starting to look outdated. • a hopelessly outdated computer system
antiquated regarded as in need of updating or replacing, though still functioning or in use • How can we make any progress with these antiquated notions about what our mission is?
archaic belonging to a much earlier period of time, often suggesting a lack of relevance to modern life • Opponents argue that the practice is archaic and degrading.
obsolete superseded by something new, and in some cases therefore no longer in use • a software tool for managing data that renders everything else obsolete
passé dismissed as no longer current or fashionable • Will attaching ’e-’ to the front of a word soon become passé?
antediluvian extremely old-fashioned and outdated • The old rotary dial phone must seem antediluvian to my grandson. • He condemned what he called antediluvian attitudes to work practices.
periodic, intermittent, occasional, sporadic
recurring over a period of time
periodic recurring or reappearing from time to time • carry out periodic inspections • El Niño, a periodic weather pattern
intermittent occurring at irregular intervals • The pain was usually intermittent, although in some patients it was continuous. • Thunder, lightning and intermittent rain delayed the start of the tournament.
occasional occurring infrequently at irregular intervals • Her family kept in contact by email, social media and occasional visits. • He sat silent, emitting only an occasional suppressed giggle.
sporadic occurring irregularly and unpredictably • Despite a truce announced last month, sporadic fighting continues. • Prior to the mid-1960s, pollution issues received only limited and sporadic attention from the general public.
pliable, ductile, malleable, elastic, pliant, plastic
able to be bent or moulded
pliable flexible and easily bent or moulded • good-quality, pliable leather • The pliable minds of youngsters are easily influenced by the media.
ductile (of metals) easily drawn out into a long continuous wire or hammered into thin sheets • The alloy possesses a high proportion of tin to copper, giving the metal special ductile qualities.
malleable (of metals or similar substances) able to be shaped without breaking or cracking • Iron possesses a very low carbon content, which makes it tough and malleable.
elastic able to be stretched without breaking and then to return to an original shape • An elastic material such as rubber is easily pulled into long strings. • Add enough water to form a soft elastic dough and knead until smooth.
pliant supple and easily bent • To execute this move, the wrist must be pliant and completely relaxed.
plastic easily shaped, moulded or modelled • plastic clay
proud, arrogant, conceited, egotistical, vain
pleased with oneself
proud justifiably pleased and satisfied with one’s achievements or similar circumstance, or self-satisfied and having an exaggerated sense of self-worth • We were very proud of our DIY project. • Some people may be too proud to accept help, even in times of great need.
arrogant feeling or showing self-importance and contempt for others • What made this arrogant man assume that I would be interested in him? • Sometimes he displays not just extreme self-confidence, but an almost arrogant attitude.
conceited showing excessive satisfaction with your personal qualities or abilities • She was less brilliant than her sister and, perhaps as a consequence, also less conceited. • I don’t know how to say this without sounding conceited, but my son is something special.
egotistical having an inflated sense of self-importance, especially when this is shown through constantly talking or thinking about yourself • a documentary that portrays her as egotistical and hungry for publicity • an intensely egotistical and unfeeling man
vain excessively self-satisfied, especially suggesting that someone is overly concerned and pleased with his or her own personal appearance • He was vain about his looks, and even more vain about his physique. • Being vain, she did not want to be seen without make-up.
sarcastic, ironic, sardonic, satirical, caustic
intended or intending to mock
sarcastic characterised by words that mean the opposite of what they seem and are designed to mock • She cared little for his sarcastic jokes. • ’Nice shot,’ she said sarcastically, as I missed the waste-paper basket.
ironic deliberately stating the opposite of the truth, usually with the intention of being amusing • The nickname Charles the Bald may not have been descriptive but ironic, implying Charles was exceptionally hairy.
sardonic mocking and cynical or disdainful, though not deliberately hurtful • a sardonic smile • He gradually evolved into a more polished politician — his sardonic humour emerged, and his views became more refined.
satirical using ridicule to criticise faults, especially in the arts or politics • a satirical TV puppet show • He was a sharp, satirical observer of the social scene.
caustic harsh and bitter and intended to mock, offend or belittle • a barrage of witty and caustic editorials • His caustic style made him the most controversial American sports commentator of his time.
secret, clandestine, covert, furtive, stealthy, surreptitious
secret known by only a few people and intentionally withheld from general knowledge • supported by a majority in a secret ballot • The find was kept secret so that it could be professionally excavated by the archaeology department.
clandestine concealed, usually because illegal or unauthorised • It appeared he was having a clandestine relationship with a married woman. • clandestine arms deals
covert not intended to be known, seen or found out, often for official reasons • a covert police operation • a covert intelligence and sabotage campaign
furtive cautious and careful in order to escape notice • Sandra was whispering to her neighbour, with occasional furtive glances in Tom’s direction. • The stranger looked around, then walked in an oddly furtive manner towards the gate.
stealthy done quietly, slowly and cautiously in order to escape notice • Casting a stealthy glance around, he leant forward and lowered his voice.
surreptitious done in a concealed or underhand way to escape notice • surreptitious checking for clues to the thief’s identity • take a surreptitious look at the name on the envelope
silent, quiet, reticent, taciturn, uncommunicative
not speaking or not saying much
silent not speaking or communicating at a particular time, especially through choice, or not inclined to speak much • Both men were silent for a moment. • He’s a rather silent type, not fond of small talk.
quiet not inclined to speak much, often because of shyness, or not speaking or communicating at a particular time • Keep quiet and sit still, would you? • Dan, who was nearly five years old, was very bright, but quiet.
reticent unwilling to communicate very much or talk freely, or to reveal all the facts about something • The usually reticent athlete surprised us by sharing his views on the rest of the season. • The boss of the cosmetics empire was reticent when it came to discussing his business philosophy.
taciturn habitually reserved in speech and manner • Both men were taciturn and found it difficult to put ideas into words. • The team’s coach, never particularly talkative, has been even more taciturn than usual.
uncommunicative not willing to say much, or tending not to say much • Fred was somewhat reserved and uncommunicative concerning his recent experiences.
talkative, chatty, gossipy, garrulous, loquacious
talking a lot
talkative willing to talk readily and at length • The normally talkative champion refused to be drawn on his prospects for the tournament. • Danny was in a talkative mood.
chatty talking freely about unimportant things in a friendly way • My niece was her usual chatty self, talking about her hamster.
gossipy talking with relish about other people and their lives, often unkindly or maliciously • articles ranging from the informative to the gossipy • a gossipy neighbour
garrulous excessively or pointlessly talkative • a garrulous host with a thousand stories to tell to any guest who would listen
loquacious tending to talk a great deal • Usually loquacious, she was so surprised that she was momentarily at a loss for words. • Her loquacious older brother was talking enthusiastically about the new venture.
temporary, fleeting, passing, transitory, ephemeral, evanescent, short-lived
lasting only a short time
temporary lasting or designed to last for a limited time • The flash caused only temporary injury to the man’s sight. • In some organisations, temporary jobs offer a step on the way to regular employment.
fleeting very brief or rapid • a fleeting moment of happiness • Most reviewers predicted the book would enjoy only fleeting success.
passing superficial and not long-lasting • This man had no feelings for her other than a passing interest. • Are recycled clothes just this year’s passing fad?
transitory existing only for a short time • the transitory nature of stardom
ephemeral lasting for a short time and leaving no permanent trace • Fashions are ephemeral; new ones regularly drive out the old.
evanescent (literary) disappearing after a short time and soon forgotten • a shimmering, evanescent bubble
short-lived lasting only for a short time • The actor, who earlier this year vowed never to go on stage again, has been tempted out of his short-lived retirement.
thin, lean, slim, slender, emaciated, scraggy, scrawny, skinny, svelte
without much flesh, the opposite of fat
thin having little body fat • I’d forgotten how thin her face has become.
lean muscular and fit-looking • He had a typical runner’s physique, short and lean.
slim pleasingly thin and well-proportioned • Tall and slim, the ballerina’s body had the tautness of an athlete’s.
slender gracefully and attractively thin • A tall, slender model walked down the fashion-show runway.
emaciated unhealthily thin, usually because of illness or starvation • Aid officials in the war zone reported seeing seriously undernourished, even emaciated people.
scraggy or scrawny unpleasantly or unhealthily thin and bony • A scraggy old cat lives in the barn. • A dog with a scrawny look rooted around in the bins.
skinny extremely thin, or tight-fitting • A new-born chimpanzee seems a skinny little thing compared with a human baby. • He was wearing skinny jeans.
svelte slender and elegant • She was svelte and sophisticated in her little black dress and pearls.
verbal, spoken, oral
expressed in words
verbal using words, especially spoken words • a stream of verbal abuse • Body language conveys meaning often missed in merely verbal communication.
spoken expressed with the voice • the development of students’ understanding of the spoken word • Written language needs to be more ’correct’ than spoken language.
oral expressed in spoken, as opposed to written, form • Assessment will be by written essays and an oral examination. • The committee’s findings relied on oral histories and journals, DNA evidence and genealogical records.
unlawful, illegal, illicit, wrongful
not in accordance with laws or rules
unlawful not permitted by the law or by the rules of an organisation or religion, or not recognised as valid by those laws or rules • The police officer was aware that possessing a knife was not per se an unlawful act. • This change makes it unlawful for employers to have different compulsory retirement ages for men and women.
illegal contravening a specific written statute, rule or law, especially a criminal law • drug smuggling and other illegal activities • Under the new ruling, it is illegal to gather in groups of more than six people.
illicit not permitted by the law, suggesting especially that something is considered morally wrong or unacceptable • illicit weapons and drugs • The divorce papers cite his numerous illicit affairs.
wrongful (often used in civil lawsuits) unjust, unfair or against conscience, but not punishable by criminal law • the wrongful use of confidential information • awarded damages for wrongful arrest
unruly, intractable, recalcitrant, obstreperous, wilful, wild, wayward
not submitting to control
unruly boisterous, disruptive and difficult to control or discipline • Police tried to subdue the more unruly elements of the crowd. • unruly behaviour
intractable (formal) strong-willed and refusing to be controlled, or difficult to solve • The new party leader proved to be even more intractable than his predecessor. • The area has some intractable social problems.
recalcitrant obstinate and defiant in refusing to submit to discipline or control • an armed force sufficient to enforce the law on recalcitrant individuals • When she spoke, it was in the voice that she reserved for recalcitrant children.
obstreperous noisy, difficult to control, and uncooperative • an incident between a shop assistant and an obstreperous customer
wilful stubbornly disregarding the opinions or advice of others • His wilful refusal to listen to the other side was infuriating. • the challenge of raising a wilful child
wild showing a general lack of control or restraint • When we were young and inexperienced, we did some rather wild things.
wayward disobedient and uncontrollable • The boy’s mother worked hard to keep track of her sometimes wayward son. • It was years before I gave up trying to change his wayward lifestyle.
unwilling, reluctant, disinclined, averse, hesitant, loath
lacking the desire to do something
unwilling not prepared to do something • The authorities seem unable or unwilling to take tough action. • He put down rebellions viciously, in an attempt to impose his harsh rule on his unwilling subjects.
reluctant showing no enthusiasm for doing something and only doing it if forced • Although elderly, she valued her independence and was often reluctant to accept help.
disinclined showing a lack of enthusiasm for something rather than a strong objection to it • It will probably be a long session, so I’m disinclined to go this time.
averse (formal) strongly opposed to or disliking something • I’m not averse to putting it all in writing if you think it will help. • averse to marriage
hesitant not eager to do something because of uncertainty or lack of confidence • Throughout the first set, both players looked tense and were hesitant to attack. • She felt hesitant about getting involved.
loath very unwilling to do something • Today’s Hollywood producers seem loath to take chances on newcomers. • I’m loath to admit it to her for fear of what she’ll say.
usual, customary, habitual, routine, wonted
often or frequently done, used, bought or consumed
usual normal, common or typical • He made his way home by his usual route. • Mum responded in the usual way.
customary conforming to regular or typical practice • It’s customary for us to give presents to everyone in the family. • He responded with his customary good humour.
habitual done so often or repeatedly that the behaviour or practice has become ingrained • a habitual slouch • He addressed the meeting with his habitual frankness.
routine normal, regular and usual in every way, even predictable, repetitive and monotonous • nurses who are engaged in routine work on the wards • They found a fault in the fuel supply during a routine check.
wonted (formal) usual or typical • Briefly overcome with emotion, she soon resumed her wonted composure.
vacant, unoccupied, empty, void
lacking contents or occupants
vacant without occupants or contents, often temporarily • positions left vacant by teachers • In this part of the country, there is plenty of vacant land. • vacant hotel rooms
unoccupied not lived in by anybody, or currently without occupants • The building was unoccupied at the time of the fire. • You can use the unoccupied desk over there.
empty not containing or holding anything, or without occupants • She took a last hasty gulp of coffee and put the empty cup on the counter. • Cinemas showing the film were almost empty.
void having no contents, or having no incumbent, occupant or holder • void spaces between the particles • She was without rental income during the period the property was void.
valid, cogent, convincing, reasonable, sound
worthy of acceptance or credence
valid having a solid foundation or justification • Mrs Smith raises a valid point in her letter. • We are required to notify all other parties unless there is a valid reason why such notice should not be given.
cogent forceful and convincing to the intellect and reason • You presented a cogent analysis of the situation. • The way they argued their case was neither logical nor cogent.
convincing likely to overcome doubts and win support • Your explanation leaves questions unanswered and is not wholly convincing. • I need to see convincing evidence before I can accept this theory.
reasonable acceptable and in keeping with common sense • We must show reasonable grounds for wanting to dismiss the employee. • It seemed a reasonable assumption at the time.
sound based on good sense and acceptable reasoning, and worthy of approval • Her portfolio is diversified in accordance with sound investment policy. • He offers some sound advice on road safety.
weak, feeble, infirm, debilitated, decrepit, enervated
lacking physical strength or energy
weak not physically fit or mentally strong • By this time I felt too weak to think rationally. • I’m just a weak fool who can’t do what he knows he should.
feeble lacking physical or mental strength or health • Weak from loss of blood, he made a feeble attempt to stand.
infirm lacking strength as a result of long illness or advanced years • elderly and infirm people • Increasingly infirm, she was unable to visit us this year.
debilitated with strength and energy temporarily diminished as a result of illness or physical exertion • feeling thoroughly debilitated after his surgery • Rescuers found the pair in a half-frozen and debilitated condition.
decrepit (informal) made weak by advanced years • His body may have grown increasingly decrepit, but his mind remains sharp.
enervated (literary) made weak and tired by physical or mental exertion • The morning outside in the intense heat made us feel faint and enervated. • enervated by worry and the long ordeal of waiting
wet, damp, moist, dank, humid, sodden, saturated, soaking, sopping
wet term used to describe everything from paint that is not yet quite dry to something that is completely covered in water • a wet sponge • I was wet through but completely unharmed.
damp slightly wet, especially undesirably so • The mattress was too damp to sleep on.
moist slightly wet, usually desirably so • a rich moist cake
dank (of a place) unpleasantly damp and cold and usually with a bad smell • The walls of the cave were cold, dank and rather slimy.
humid (of air) having a high water content, often also suggesting accompanying heat • the humid swamps of Florida
sodden extremely wet and heavy with retained moisture • Torrential rain left their clothes and packs sodden.
saturated penetrated with moisture and thoroughly soaked • There is no indication that farmers would be able to work the saturated fields even if the weather were drier.
soaking (informal) extremely and undesirably wet • After he had walked half a mile in driving rain, his shoes were soaking wet.
sopping (informal) extremely and undesirably wet • a tangle of sopping hair
widespread, prevalent, rife, epidemic, universal
occurring over a wide area
widespread existing or happening in many places, or affecting many people • This graceful antelope was once widespread in North Africa. • Drugs in sport are becoming a much more widespread problem.
prevalent occurring commonly or widely as a dominant feature • the prevalent public mood • These diseases are prevalent among young children.
rife full of or very common, especially in reference to something undesirable • Looting was rife in the region. • The City was rife with rumours of takeovers.
epidemic spreading more quickly and more extensively than expected • Bribery in the country was reported to have reached epidemic proportions.
universal affecting the whole world, a whole country, or everyone in a large group or wide area • His decision was met with almost universal condemnation, even from those who had earlier supported him. • Mobile phones have become a universal feature of life.
wordy, verbose, long-winded, rambling, prolix, diffuse
using too many words or not concisely expressed
wordy using an excessive number of words in writing or speech • Avoid being wordy in memos: stay brief and to the point.
verbose expressed in language that is wordy and not precise • He recently finished writing his memoirs which, at 1,088 pages, are just as verbose as his endless political speeches.
long-winded tediously wordy in speech or writing • a long-winded question • The records were disappointingly terse in respect of important topics, and infuriatingly long-winded when it came to trivial ones.
rambling excessively long with many changes of subject • a rambling fifteen-page letter • He told a long, rambling story to which he forgot the punchline.
prolix tiresomely wordy • This prolix style will put readers off.
diffuse lacking organisation and conciseness • His ideas were so diffuse I couldn’t really understand what he was saying. • the conflicting, volatile and diffuse demands of different political groups
Choosing the right noun
NOUNS (see chapter 1, here) are the largest class of words in English and, like adjectives, are rich in synonyms. Precision in using nouns is important for both accuracy and style, so it’s helpful to have a selection of different, but related, nouns at one’s disposal.
Below are thirty-one sets of nouns that — in at least one of their main senses — share the same core meaning but have slightly different nuances.
ability, skill, competence, aptitude, capacity, capability
necessary skill, knowledge or experience to do something
ability natural tendency to do something successfully or well • Her first attempt at the hurdles course already demonstrated her unusual ability for the sport. • Honeybees show a remarkable ability to respond collectively to outside stimuli.
skill ability to do something well, gained through training or experience • She made all the arrangements with consummate skill and professionalism. • good communication skills
competence ability that has been developed, measured against a standard • professional competence built up over the preceding twenty years
aptitude natural tendency to do something well, especially one that can be further developed • The students’ aptitude for mechanical design is clear from the robot they made.
capacity mental or physical ability • his youthful energy and capacity for hard work • limited capacity to sustain an interest in politics
capability power or practical ability to do something • Do they have the capability to cover such a large service area? • the relationship between a company’s size and its technological capabilities
anger, annoyance, irritation, resentment, indignation, fury, rage, wrath, ire
feeling of strong displeasure in response to an assumed injury
anger strong feeling of grievance and displeasure • His face turned red with anger. • I didn’t want to face their anger.
annoyance mild anger and impatience • a source of annoyance to him • I couldn’t find my credit card, much to the annoyance of the people queueing behind me.
irritation impatience and exasperation • reply with ill-concealed irritation • a sign of his intense irritation with the bureaucracy he was up against
resentment aggrieved feelings caused by a sense of unfair treatment • The policy of reducing overtime provoked bitter resentment throughout the workforce. • Try to overcome your feelings of resentment at not being chosen and move on.
indignation anger because something seems unfair or unreasonable • The suggestion that she could perhaps have worked harder was met with indignation.
fury violent anger • Their eyes were fixed on each other in cold fury. • Fury at the rejection welled up in him.
rage sudden and extreme anger • jealous rage • When the boy clumsily dropped the tray, Toby flew into a rage.
wrath strong anger, often with a desire for revenge • the wrath of God • I don’t want to incur the wrath of my manager by changing the plan.
ire (literary) strong anger • This decision drew the ire of rights activists.
answer, rejoinder, reply, response, retort, riposte
thing said, written or done in acknowledgment of a question or remark, or in reaction to a situation
answer reaction, usually written or spoken, to a question, communication or situation • give the right answer • She searched for an appropriate answer to Jason’s question.
rejoinder (formal) sharp, critical, angry or clever reply, usually spoken • ’Of course the school is to blame,’ came the parents’ angry rejoinder.
reply answer or reaction to a question, communication or request • a written reply to our letter • ’How do you know that?’ she asked, but her friend only giggled in reply.
response spoken or written answer, or a reaction to a situation • Could I have your response by Wednesday? • His comments sparked an angry response in the press. • a steady improvement in ambulance response times
retort sharp spoken response, often to criticism • Polly managed to suppress a cutting retort.
riposte quick or witty reply, usually spoken • I never manage to deliver a riposte at the time, but always think of one later.
backer, angel, guarantor, patron, sponsor
person who provides financial support
backer someone who gives moral or financial support • The project’s main backer has withdrawn his support.
angel someone who provides financial support for an enterprise, for example, a theatrical venture • Without the investment of West End angels, many shows would never open.
guarantor someone who gives a legal undertaking to be responsible for another person’s debts or obligations • My mother acted as guarantor for the loan.
patron someone who gives financial or moral support to another person, an institution or a charity, especially in the arts • monarchs were great patrons of the arts • A wealthy patron brought the young opera singer to this country and paid for his music lessons.
sponsor person or organisation that contributes money to help fund an event, usually in return for publicity, or gives money to a person taking part in a fundraising activity • look for sponsors for a charity concert • We would like to thank our sponsors for donating the prizes.
beginner, apprentice, novice
person who has not acquired the necessary experience or skills to do something
beginner someone who has just started to learn or do something • classes for both beginners and advanced students • a course that teaches beginners the basics of drawing
apprentice someone who is being taught the skills of a trade over an agreed period • become an apprentice electrician
novice someone with no previous experience or skill in an activity undertaken • a political novice working on his first campaign • a ski trail for novices
candidate, contender, contestant, aspirant, applicant, entrant
person who is seeking to be chosen for something or to win something
candidate someone who is being considered for a job, grant or prize, running for election, or taking part in an examination • the Liberal candidate •candidates for the newly created supervisory posts
contender competitor, especially a person who has a good chance of winning • a contender for the best supporting actor award • She is emerging as a strong contender for the presidency.
contestant someone who takes part in a contest or competitive event • a contestant on a popular TV quiz show • To win, the contestant must score eleven points.
aspirant someone aspiring to distinction or advancement • another aspirant to the peerage • a challenge from a rival aspirant to the role
applicant someone who has formally applied to be a candidate for something • the hiring manager will choose eight applicants to interview • It’s claimed that the company is turning away hundreds of job applicants.
entrant someone who enters a competition or examination • I was the only entrant, so the event was cancelled.
courage, bravery, fearlessness, nerve, guts, pluck, mettle
personal resoluteness in the face of danger or difficulties
courage ability to show strength and determination, whether physical, mental or moral, against a wide range of difficulties or dangers • a supreme act of courage • It took courage to speak out against the proposal.
bravery ability to deal with pain, challenge or danger without showing fear • She was awarded the George Cross for her bravery. • A friend paid tribute to his bravery throughout his long illness.
fearlessness extreme lack of fear in the face of dangers or challenges • a police officer displaying grit, fearlessness and devotion to duty • We walked across the viaduct with the fearlessness of the young.
nerve coolness, steadiness and self-assurance • He didn’t have the nerve to confront me. • She almost lost her nerve and backed out.
guts (slang) strength of character and boldness • It takes a lot of guts to get back to normal activities after such a terrible injury. • Why don’t they have the guts to tackle the problem?
pluck resolution and willingness to continue struggling against the odds • Very few people have the pluck to stand up to a huge corporation. • With a sizable dose of pluck, he managed to secure an interview.
mettle spirited determination • The match today will test their mettle. • Only time will tell if she has the mettle to rise to the challenge.
dislike, distaste, hatred, disgust, loathing, repugnance, abhorrence, animosity, antipathy, aversion, revulsion
feeling of not liking someone or something
dislike attitude or feeling of aversion, disapproval or distaste • a dislike for sudden change • Their cat took a dislike to me and stalked away.
distaste mild dislike, mainly of behaviour and activities • He wrinkled his nose in distaste at the rubbish in the park. • a distaste for horror films
hatred or hate intense dislike or hostility • verbal expressions of hatred • It was an inflammatory speech designed to stoke hate.
disgust feeling of horrified and sickened disapproval • He pointed in disgust to the animal’s filthy cage.
loathing intense dislike • A passionate loathing of materialism is evident in his writing. • I developed an irrational loathing for the song after having heard it repeatedly.
repugnance strong disgust, mainly directed at behaviour and activities • He expressed his repugnance at the motiveless assault. • international repugnance at the past week’s violence
abhorrence feeling of aversion or intense disapproval • our deep and abiding abhorrence of social injustice
animosity feeling of hostility and resentment • a nation with a history of animosity towards rival exporters • There was no personal animosity between my sister and me.
antipathy deep-seated dislike or hostility • his well-known antipathy to the nationalist cause • These rumours fuelled the crowd’s antipathy towards the government.
aversion strong feeling of dislike • He has always shown an aversion to most forms of exercise. • an instinctive aversion to being bossed around
revulsion sudden violent feeling of disgust • experience a deep feeling of revulsion at the waste of human life • The case sent a wave of revulsion through the community.
fight, battle, war, conflict, engagement, skirmish, clash
struggle between opposing forces
fight physical struggle between individuals or groups such as battalions or armies • They had a fight with the guard and captured his rifle. • The fight for the village was part of an operation to subdue local resistance.
battle large-scale fight involving combat between opposing forces, warships or aircraft as part of an ongoing war or campaign • killed in the Battle of Arras • Her brother was one of the casualties of the air battle.
war state of hostilities between nations, states or factions involving the use of arms and the occurrence of a series of battles • at the outbreak of war • a long-running civil war • the war years • the post-war period
conflict warfare between opposing forces, especially a prolonged and bitter but sporadic struggle • an end to bloody conflict in the Balkans • a border conflict with sporadic troop clashes • armed conflict
engagement hostile encounter involving military forces • the rules of engagement • Planes attacked artillery bases in the largest military engagement of the war to date.
skirmish brief minor fight, usually one that is part of a larger conflict • a skirmish with guerrillas in which several soldiers were killed • The last skirmish in the three-day battle came just after midnight.
clash short fierce encounter, usually involving physical combat • The meeting was marred by a clash between the demonstrators and security guards.
fire, blaze, conflagration, inferno
burning and flames
fire light, heat and flames caused by something burning, whether deliberately or accidentally produced • the crackling fire in the hearth • a fire that gutted the building
blaze brightly and intensely burning, or large, fire • The blaze threatened to engulf a nearby house. • A 7,500-acre blaze closed the main road over the weekend.
conflagration large fire that causes a great deal of damage • The explosion of the fuel tanks consumed the warehouse in a terrifying conflagration.
inferno fire or place that is burning fiercely • The store rapidly became a roaring inferno of smoke and fire.
flaw, imperfection, fault, defect, failing, blemish, shortcoming
feature that detracts from perfection
flaw physical feature that prevents something from being totally perfect and detracts from its value, or weakness in someone’s character, or in a plan, theory or system • a tiny flaw in the glass • a fatal flaw in their strategy
imperfection something that makes a person or thing less than perfect • a minor imperfection on the shiny surface • They accepted us, with all our imperfections, as colleagues.
fault something that detracts from the integrity, functioning or perfection of a thing, or a weakness in someone’s character, usually more serious than a flaw • a design fault • regarded it as a serious fault of the education system • His worst fault is his unreliability.
defect fault in a machine, system or plan, especially one that prevents it from functioning correctly, or a personal weakness • A house may show a hidden defect several years after construction. • a metabolic defect • She regarded my reluctance to stand up for myself as a character defect.
failing something that mars a person or thing in some way, especially an unfortunate feature of someone’s character • The management acknowledged this failing in the system. • At least rudeness isn’t one of my failings.
blemish mark that detracts from the appearance of something, or a feature that detracts from someone’s personal standing • a small blemish that only an expert would have noticed • the only blemish on an otherwise perfect record
shortcoming failure or deficiency in someone’s character or in a system or organisation • The omission of this quality check is a shortcoming in the service offered. • The team’s main shortcoming has been defence.
habit, custom, tradition, practice, routine, wont
established pattern of behaviour
habit action or pattern of behaviour that is regularly repeated, so much so that it becomes predictable or typical of someone • He has the habit of buying two coffees with his paper every morning.
custom way someone normally or routinely behaves in a situation, or traditional practice of a community or group • It’s our custom to wait until everyone has arrived before we sit down.
tradition long-established action or pattern of behaviour in a certain community or group, especially one that has been handed down from generation to generation • In keeping with local tradition, beef will not be served.
practice established way of doing something, especially one that has developed through experience and knowledge • It’s always good practice to rinse the cutting board. US spelling uses ’practice’ only, whereas UK spelling uses ’practice’ as a noun and ’practise’ as a verb after each use.
routine typical pattern of behaviour that is regularly followed on a day-to-day basis, sometimes with the suggestion that this is monotonous • He had quickly re-established his old routine of writing all day and then going out at night with his friends.
wont (formal) something that someone does regularly or habitually • The spaceship’s crew, as is their wont, have run into a spot of trouble and solutions are being sought.
jargon, vocabulary, terminology, slang, idiom, argot, parlance, lingo, -speak, -ese
language used by a certain group of people
jargon expressions associated with a certain specialised activity, profession or culture, especially terms that are not generally understood by outsiders • technical jargon • We have the opportunity to generate a billion-dollar tourism product — to use that ghastly jargon.
vocabulary words used by or known to a particular group, activity, profession or culture • My Chinese vocabulary has improved. • Ongoing scientific, technological and social changes generate a stream of new vocabulary.
terminology words and expressions used by people involved in a specialised activity • commercial and financial terminology • Of the world’s fifty-three subspecies of Asian hornbills, only nine, in the terminology of a recent conference on the status of these birds, are ’stable’.
slang words, expressions and turns of phrase used instead of standard terms in casual language • He used vulgar slang inappropriate to someone in his position.
idiom style of expression associated with a certain person or group • Her new book fails to capture the American idiom quite as well as her last one did. • Only a teenager can write in an authentic teenage idiom.
argot specialised terms associated with a particular group • prison argot
parlance style of speech or writing used by people in a particular context or profession • In estate agent parlance, the house is in a ’desirable’ part of the city.
lingo (informal) way of speaking associated with a certain, usually specialised group of people, or foreign language • My wife picked up the lingo as soon as we moved here. • An expert can help translate the lingo used by lawyers into plain English.
-speak suffix added to nouns to describe the language used by a certain group of people or in a certain context, suggesting that it is obscure or difficult to follow • I’m not put off by tech-speak. • The document is full of politician-speak.
-ese suffix added to nouns to describe the language associated with a group of people, especially when it is jargon-like • No matter what the government announces, it always seems to be expressed in bureaucratic officialese. • confusing legalese
job, assignment, task, chore, duty
piece of work to be done
job activity done regularly for pay • He had managed to get himself a job on a building site. • Omar said he would make himself useful doing odd jobs.
assignment particular task given as part of the work required for an occupation or a course of study, often with a deadline; allocation of a task to someone • He rarely turned down a modelling assignment. • She had been sent on special assignment to assist the head of security at headquarters.
task piece of work that requires effort, often imposed by an employer or someone in authority, and usually of short duration or with a deadline • Your group has the task of finding three different materials, with costs, delivery methods and dates, by the 15th.
chore relatively short routine undertaking, either imposed by someone in authority or self-imposed, requiring effort and considered dull or even unpleasant • ask for help with the household chores
duty something required to be done to meet obligations to other individuals or to society • One duty of law enforcement is to investigate suspected cases of fraud.
knowledge, erudition, information, learning, scholarship, wisdom
what can be or is known
knowledge understanding gained through observation, investigation, reasoning, experience or study • The family brought decades of experience and knowledge to the making of fine furniture.
erudition learning gained through advanced study of scholarly subjects, often of a specialised or difficult nature • His essays combine keen observation with wit, erudition and compassion.
information facts or data • The organisation provides the public with information about the vaccine to help them make informed choices. • the increasing use of social media as a source of information
learning understanding gained through formal study, especially study of an advanced nature • a writer of obvious learning with a great admiration for Western civilisation
scholarship learning gained through study of an academic, often specialised, subject • a multi-volume work of scholarship that took more than a decade to complete
wisdom ability to use what is known or learnt sensibly and to combine it with experience and good judgement • Will he use his experience and wisdom to resolve the dispute? • another health report challenging the conventional wisdom about high blood pressure
lack, shortage, deficiency, deficit, want, dearth
insufficiency or absence of something
lack shortage or complete absence of something • There was a distinct lack of interest in cleaning up after the party. • The charity suffers from a lack of funds.
shortage lack of something that is needed or required • a shortage of skilled labour • The drought will cause severe food shortages.
deficiency shortfall in the amount of something necessary, for example, a nutrient in the human body, or an inadequacy in the supply or performance of something • People who don’t drink milk may develop a calcium deficiency. • We accept responsibility for any deficiency in our safety procedures.
deficit amount by which something falls short of a target amount or level • rally from a two-goal deficit to win the game • a budget deficit
want or dearth scarcity or absence of something • exhausted from overwork and want of sleep • People were paying in banknotes so there was a dearth of coins for change at the fair.
language, tongue, speech, dialect, idiolect
communication by means of words
language speech of a country, region or group, or use of spoken or written words as a communication system • the delight of hearing new languages when travelling in other countries • Persian was the official language of much of the Indian subcontinent for centuries.
tongue language used by a specific country, nation or community • students whose mother tongue is unknown to me • Neither of them could speak the other’s native tongue.
speech spoken language, especially as distinct from written language • In many cultures, children begin to acquire speech between ages one and two. • Her speech was slow after her surgery, but she understood everything we said.
dialect regional variety of a language, or a form of a language spoken by members of a certain social class or profession • the dialect spoken on the island
idiolect individual person’s speech habits or vocabulary • an unfamiliar word that was not in my idiolect
lie, untruth, falsehood, fabrication, fib, white lie
thing that is not true
lie false statement made deliberately • He described the statements of his accusers as ’a pack of lies’. • What Susan said was a blatant lie.
untruth something that is presented as being true but is in fact false • This young woman was clearly quite capable of telling untruths when it suited her.
falsehood (formal) lie or untruth • Conspiracy theorists perpetrate falsehoods online.
fabrication invented statement, story or account, devised with the intent to deceive • His story of putting it in his car so he could find the real owner later was a complete fabrication.
fib (informal) insignificant harmless lie • It shows on your face when you tell a fib. • ’I haven’t left my desk all day.’ ’That’s a fib! I can see the raindrops on your coat!’
white lie minor harmless lie, usually told to avoid hurting someone’s feelings • tell little white lies to avoid conflict • Why hadn’t she told a white lie and said the colour was flattering?
love, liking, affection, fondness, passion, infatuation, crush
strong positive feeling towards someone or something
love intense feeling of positive emotion towards, or enjoyment of, a person or thing, especially a passionate feeling of romantic desire and sexual attraction • When Lynn met Paul it was love at first sight. • She was the love of his life.
liking feeling of enjoying something or finding someone or something pleasant • He sipped his coffee, which was just to his liking. • She developed a liking for him.
affection fond or tender feelings towards someone or something • a man with a deep affection for animals • Twelve-year-old boys don’t usually welcome displays of affection.
fondness feeling of affection or preference • gazing with fondness at her two little sons • He developed a fondness for music as a child.
passion intense or overpowering emotion, either love for someone, usually of a strong sexual nature, or strong liking or enthusiasm for something • He wanted to experience a grand passion. • Her early passion for painting had developed into a successful career.
infatuation intense but short-lived, often unrealistic love for someone, usually of a romantic or sexual nature • his infatuation with an older student • She had thought she was in love, but it had only been an infatuation.
crush (informal) temporary romantic infatuation, especially in teenagers and young people • I was a young girl of eleven with a crush on a film star. • Soon afterwards he met Clare and immediately developed a crush on her.
mistake, error, inaccuracy, slip, blunder, faux pas
act or judgement that is incorrect or improper
mistake incorrect, unwise or unfortunate act or decision caused by bad judgement, lack of information or carelessness • Everyone makes mistakes; just try to learn from them. • Our big mistake was to forget the map.
error something that unintentionally deviates from a recognised standard or guide • If it had gone undetected, this dosage error would have had disastrous consequences for the patient. • The leadership made an error in appointing such an outspoken personality to head the committee.
inaccuracy something that is incorrect because it has been measured, calculated, copied or conveyed wrongly • I cross-checked the lists and found two inaccuracies, which I corrected.
slip minor mistake or oversight, especially one caused by carelessness • There was a slip in the first act, but I don’t think anyone noticed.
blunder serious or embarrassing mistake, usually the result of carelessness or ignorance • The young Ghanaian scored another goal after a blunder by Scotland’s defence.
faux pas (literary) embarrassing mistake that breaks a social convention • I made a reference to her elder brother, then realised I had committed a faux pas.
mixture, blend, combination, compound, alloy, amalgam
thing formed by mixing materials
mixture number of elements or ingredients brought together • Add the water and beat until the mixture is light and fluffy. • She felt a mixture of emotions.
blend something formed by putting together two or more things to form a new whole in which the original elements lose their distinctness • her little-known first novel, a lively blend of romance and mock-romance • a blend of passion fruit, peach juice, aromatic herbs and spring water
combination something formed by the association of two or more things that retain their distinctness • the combination of beauty, wit and charm • A combination of talent and hard work has given the company an edge.
compound chemical formed of two or more elements; more generally, something composed of two or more separate parts • volatile chemical compounds • compound words such as ’bookstore’ and ’air conditioning’
alloy term for a metal formed by combining two or more elements • Steel is basically an alloy of iron and carbon.
amalgam alloy of mercury with another metal; more generally, something that is a mixture of two or more elements or characteristics • The technique of ’mercury gilding’ involved using an amalgam of gold and mercury. • The culture of the United States is a complex amalgam of various traditions.
motive, incentive, inducement, spur, stimulus, impetus
reason or thing that prompts action
motive reason for doing something or behaving in a certain way • a crime that appears to have no motive • Walker stressed the need to maintain the highest standards in this new enquiry, fearing there were ulterior political motives for the investigation.
incentive external motive, often some kind of reward, that inspires extra enthusiasm or effort • Seeing a clear path to advancement was the incentive we needed to complete that difficult phase of training. • financial incentives for companies to reduce pollution
inducement reward or other benefit intended to persuade someone to do something or to attract someone to a certain course of action • The government offered inducements to homeowners who lived in the flood area to persuade them to relocate to higher ground. • The library’s summer festival will hopefully be an inducement for children to read more.
spur thing such as the hope of a reward or the fear of punishment that encourages action, effort or energy • Trade frequently acts as a spur to economic expansion. • Shopkeepers saw sales increase as the street was upgraded, and that in turn was a spur for them to spruce up their stores.
stimulus thing that encourages an activity or process to begin, increase or develop • The arrival of new businesses provided the commercial stimulus the town needed. • The possibility of lower interest rates acted as a stimulus to the economy
impetus energy or driving force that prompts someone to undertake or accomplish something • In the early 19th century, the impetus for setting up schools came almost exclusively from the Church. • data that gives further impetus to the growing environmentalist movement
origin, source, derivation, provenance, root
origin beginning, whether in terms of time, place, situation, or the idea from which something arose • Some of the concepts now in vogue have their origins in the 19th century. • Researchers from overseas often decide not to return to their country of origin.
source place, person or thing from which something came into being or was obtained • It is important to trace the source of your error. • Consider the source of the information before you decide whether to trust it.
derivation origin or source of something, especially a word, phrase or name • The word ’candid’ is a derivation from the Latin candidus, meaning white or shining.
provenance place of origin of something, or history of ownership of a work of art or artefact • a jade disc of Chinese provenance • Some experts have questioned the provenance and even authenticity of many of the museum’s exhibits.
root fundamental cause, basis or origin, especially of a feeling or a problem • Various factors appear to be at the root of the discontent. • The root of the problem lies in lack of communication.
problem, mystery, puzzle, riddle, conundrum, enigma
issue difficult to solve or person hard to understand
problem difficult situation, matter or person • an ongoing problem • problems with the staff
mystery event or situation that is difficult to explain, understand or find out about, or a person about whom little is known • the key to understanding the mysteries of the universe • Barry’s comings and goings are unpredictable: he remains a mystery.
puzzle problem whose solution requires ingenuity, situation that is difficult to resolve, or someone whose behaviour or motives are difficult to understand • He was almost ready to confront the murderer; one final piece of the puzzle remained.
riddle perplexing or confusing issue • ’The riddle of Tsar Nicholas II’s remains has been solved,’ the DNA team announced.
conundrum something puzzling or confusing that seems to have no solution • The moral dilemma posed a conundrum.
enigma someone or something that is not easily explained or understood • Juliet was very much an enigma to him.
smell, odour, aroma, bouquet, scent, perfume, fragrance, stink, stench, reek
way something smells
smell general term, covering neutral, pleasant or unpleasant smells • a black substance that had the most awful smell • the smell of wet mittens
odour neutral or unpleasant smell • the rank odour of sweat • Horses can smell dry oats, which for us essentially have no odour.
aroma distinctive pleasant smell, especially one related to cooking or food • the heady aroma of roasted coffee beans
bouquet characteristic pleasant smell, usually associated with fine wines • the wine has an oaky bouquet
scent pleasant, sweet smell, for example, of flowers; characteristic smell given off by an animal • The air was heavy with the scent of blossom. • Badgers can sometimes become nervous if they catch the scent of a stranger.
perfume sweet, pleasant and heady smell, especially that of flowers or plants • the perfume of jasmine
fragrance sweet pleasant smell, especially a delicate or subtle one • the faint, elusive fragrance of his cologne • The red roses filled the air with their fragrance.
stink strong unpleasant smell • the stink of sewage
stench strong unpleasant smell, especially one associated with burning or decay • The stench of rotting cabbage hung in the air. • Rescue workers wore face masks to protect them from the stench.
reek strong unpleasant smell • the pungent reek of salted fish
subject, topic, subject matter, matter, theme, burden
issue under discussion
subject issue being discussed, examined or otherwise considered • I didn’t bring up the subject of money with my cousin. • Restoration of the wreck will be the subject of an exhibition at the Maritime Museum this year.
topic matter dealt with in writing or discussion • The paper identified four major topics for consideration. • the current hot topic of conversation
subject matter subject focused on in a book, film, discussion or other medium • Her favourite subject matter is suburban family life. • a photographer whose subject matter is the aftermath of war
matter well-defined area of mutual concern, discussion or correspondence • Let’s take up this matter when we have our schedules in front of us. • I’ll hold, please — it’s an urgent matter.
theme distinct recurring and unifying idea in music, literature, art or film • Loyalty and betrayal are the principal themes of this book.
burden (literary) main argument in, or gist of, a piece of literature, music or art • The main burden of the book is that the middle classes have lost their moral compass.
talent, gift, flair, bent, knack, genius
ability to do something well
talent natural ability to do something well • a persuasive speaker with a natural talent for diplomacy • Our company has a great wealth of underutilised talent.
gift natural ability, especially an artistic ability or a social skill • Hannah had inherited a gift for music. • He had the rare gift of speaking to the point just at the appropriate moment.
flair natural ability to do something well, especially a creative or artistic one • The film director creates a sense of place with masterly flair.
bent natural ability, inclination or liking for something • Technical schools are always looking for students who have a resourceful, practical bent.
knack intuitive or acquired skill for something • There is a knack to opening the bottle.
genius exceptional intellectual or creative ability • Beethoven’s unparalleled genius for the symphonic form
type, kind, sort, category, class, species, genre
group having a common quality or qualities
type group of individuals or items with strongly marked and readily defined similarities • Certain types of bacteria can build up resistance to disinfectants. • The reactor was of the same type as the one used at Chernobyl in 1986.
kind group of individuals or items connected by shared characteristics • comparing soils of different kinds • the kind of music danced to in the 1600s
sort group of things or people with a common feature • leisure activities of various sorts • What sort of subjects will you be painting?
category set or group of things or people that are classified together because of common characteristics • I’m looking for the best deal in each category: desktop, laptop and handheld. • It’s not a usual pudding, but I’d still put it in that category.
class set of things with a property in common • there are other classes of drugs used in the treatment of cardiac arrest • They won eleven medals in the twelve weight classes at the world championships.
species taxonomic unit for groups of animals, plants, insects or other organisms • a meadow containing several species of rare orchid
genre style or category of painting, writing, dance or other art form • genres such as the thriller and the spy novel • The club promises to showcase quality music of all genres.
wage, salary, pay, fee, remuneration, emolument, honorarium, stipend
money given for work done
wage fixed regular payment made to an employee • The club pays my wages. • a national minimum wage
salary fixed regular annual sum, usually paid monthly, especially to a clerical or professional worker • teachers’ salaries • an annual salary of £100,000
pay wage or salary • a month-long strike for better pay and conditions • ’Equal pay for equal work’ is a slogan of the feminist movement.
fee payment made to a professional person by a client • Such lawyers charged high fees and served only the elite. • The costs of expert’s fees are to be met equally by the parties concerned.
remuneration payment for work, goods or services • a review body to advise on the proper remuneration for teachers • a need to investigate the levels of remuneration paid to day-care workers
emolument (formal) payment for work • Unfortunately, his fame was not accompanied by large emoluments and he died nearly penniless.
honorarium money given in exchange for services for which there is normally no fixed charge • Group members receive a small honorarium in recognition of their expertise and time spent.
stipend regular payment or allowance for living expenses, especially one made to a member of the clergy or a student • The priest’s yearly stipend was barely sufficient to live on.
work, labour, toil, drudgery
sustained effort required to do or produce something
work physical or mental effort required to do or achieve something, used of animals and machines as well as people • Most installation programs will do the configuration work for you. • You will have general managers to coordinate your work.
labour strenuous work, usually physical • Joseph began a hard life of prayer, fasting and manual labour. • After three hours of litter-picking, the results of our labour were evident.
toil tiring, often boring, physical work, usually over a long period • His rough hands bore testimony to a life of toil.
drudgery work that is hard and unrewarding, especially work that continues over a long period • the drudgery of sorting, coding, boxing and stacking a warehouse full of files
worry, unease, care, anxiety, angst, stress
troubled state of mind
worry troubled state of mind resulting from concern about current or potential difficulties • I’m beside myself with worry. • She quite forgot her own worries in her concern for him.
unease feeling of anxiety or lack of satisfaction with a situation • I felt a sense of unease as soon as the phone rang late that night. • The announcement provoked considerable unease among UN officials.
care object of concern • He began whistling as though he hadn’t a care in the world. • Your good news has banished my cares.
anxiety nervous apprehension about a future event or a general fear of possible misfortune • parental anxieties about a child’s academic progress • Although she has been teaching for eight years, she always feels a twinge of anxiety at the beginning of a new year.
angst non-specific ongoing worry about the human condition or the state of the world • the angst that accompanies shifts in global power • Only in our youth-obsessed culture could such adolescent angst be of such interest.
stress worry and nervous apprehension related to a situation or event • relaxation techniques to help relieve the stress of everyday life • Now that my workload is lighter, I feel less stress.
Choosing the right verb
Consider the following everyday English verbs of movement: crawl, slither, creep, clamber, stagger, lurch. Each is different, with its own vivid associations. Like other word classes in English, VERBS (see chapter 1, here) arrived from various linguistic sources, and some initially had roughly the same meaning. But over time, individual verbs have taken on their own sense distinctions, resulting in a richness found only rarely in other languages.
Listed below are sets of verbs whose meanings are close. The short definitions and example sentences are intended to suggest, or prompt memory of, which of the alternative verbs might best fit which kind of context.
accomplish, achieve, attain, carry out, pull off, realise
bring something to a successful conclusion
accomplish carry out or complete something successfully • You don’t accomplish anything by blaming other people. • Mission accomplished, we headed for home.
achieve succeed in doing something, usually with effort • three main ways in which the committee hopes to achieve its aims • an example of what can be achieved through good planning
attain reach a specific objective • a desire to attain certain goals • attain a full command of the English language
carry out perform a task or activity • carry out the instructions to the letter • She found it hard to believe that Jim would carry out his threat.
pull off (informal) achieve something impressive, particularly through a combination of skill and luck • The goalkeeper pulled off a fine save. • They pulled off a fine performance despite having missed rehearsals.
realise fulfil a specific vision, plan or potential • Why not realise your full potential? • His dream was realised when he signed with Arsenal.
agree, concur, acquiesce, consent, assent
accept an idea, plan or course of action that has been put forward
agree have the same opinion as someone else about a course of action • We agreed to meet at nine o’clock the next morning. • They have agreed in principle to sell off the land.
concur agree or reach agreement formally on a specified point • I fully concur with my colleague’s comment. • Do the two sides concur that a settlement can be reached?
acquiesce agree to or comply with something or after an initial refusal • Peter was not entirely happy with the proposal, but eventually acquiesced.
consent agree to something or give formal permission for something to happen • consent to the marriage
assent approve something formally • The directors assented to the new policy in a statement to the board.
annoy, irritate, exasperate, vex, irk
cause a mild degree of anger in someone
annoy cause impatience or anger in someone • Must you tap your foot when you know how much it annoys me?
irritate annoy someone slightly • If this medication irritates your skin, call me right away.
exasperate arouse anger or frustration in someone • Exasperated at the lack of progress, he shouted at the team to pull harder.
vex annoy someone, especially causing upset or distress • The question about the relative importance of economics and welfare is one that always vexes me.
irk annoy someone by being tiresome or tedious • It irked her to see how little attention he paid to her efforts.
change, alter, modify, convert, vary, shift, transform, transmute
make or become different
change make or become different in some way • The society we live in is changing rapidly. • pressure to change public attitudes to health
alter change, especially change an aspect of something • try to alter the perception of the city as a cultural desert • Don’t alter the schedule.
modify make minor changes or alterations, especially in order to improve something • It is possible to modify even the very oldest of behaviour patterns. • modifying the maths curriculum
convert change something from one form or function to another • the process by which food is absorbed and converted into energy and heat • plans to convert the buildings into luxury apartments
vary change within a range of possibilities, or in line with something else, with a suggestion of instability • Opening times may vary with the season. • You can vary the menu according to your taste.
shift change from one position or direction to another • The focus of your paper may shift as you write. • For most of us, our native language is alive and constantly shifting.
transform make a radical change into a different form • The playground is being transformed into a community garden. • A good teacher can transform the life of a student.
transmute change into another form, used especially in technical contexts • The Old Norse word borg, meaning ’citadel’, was later transmuted into borough. • The ancient alchemists tried to transmute base metals into gold.
collect, accumulate, gather, amass, assemble, stockpile, hoard
bring dispersed things together
collect bring things together, or put a group of similar things together as a hobby • He started collecting stamps at the age of nine. • Our sensory organs collect information about everything around us.
accumulate obtain over a period of time • We seem to accumulate objects faster than we can organise them. • An enormous amount of information about the species has been accumulated over the last century.
gather bring together things from various locations • go to the forest to gather firewood • She is gathering information on the subject.
amass put a large quantity of things together over time • the growing evidence that is being amassed by investigators • He is thought to have amassed a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars.
assemble bring together in an orderly way • one of the greatest orchestras ever assembled
stockpile collect and store things in large amounts for future use • The town stockpiled sand and salt for the roads in case of another cold winter.
hoard collect and store in large amounts, often secretly • The squirrels hoarded hundreds of acorns under the porch. • I wondered what had happened to those carefully hoarded letters.
complain, object, protest, grumble, grouse, carp, gripe, whine, nag
indicate dissatisfaction with something
complain express discontent or unhappiness about a situation • Nearby neighbours had complained about the noise and the mess. • He complained bitterly that no one ever took him seriously.
object be opposed to something, or express opposition to it • We object strongly to the two proposals. • Sports groups have objected that the plan takes away space once intended to be used as a playing field.
protest express strong disapproval or disagreement • a day of action to protest against the proposed fare hikes • From about eight months old, babies are likely to protest loudly at being passed around between people.
grumble complain or mutter in a discontented way, sometimes repeatedly or continually • Grumbling, he picked up his brush and got down to work. • She grumbled about the cold coffee.
grouse complain regularly and continually, often in a way that is not constructive • grouse about the commercialism of art • ’These talks are leading nowhere,’ one of the negotiators groused.
carp keep complaining or finding fault, especially about unimportant things • He was a mean employer, carping all the time. • carp about the seating arrangements
gripe (informal) complain continually and irritatingly • He was griping about the fact that I had not presented him with an advance copy of the book. • You griped when I was in the house all day, and now that I’ve found a job you’re still unhappy!
whine complain in an unreasonable, repeated or irritating way • Stop whining — there’s nothing we can do about it! • She always suggests the cinema, then whines that it’s so expensive.
nag find fault with someone regularly and repeatedly • He nagged his sister about her visiting them in the country.
copy, reproduce, duplicate, clone, replicate, re-create
make something that resembles something else
copy make a sample or instance that is the same as something else • Taking a photo is quicker than copying longhand.
reproduce make a copy of something by technical means • an attempt to reproduce human speech digitally • No part of this publication may be reproduced without the prior permission of the publisher.
duplicate create an identical version of something • Give the notes to my assistant so they can be duplicated. • She had the office key duplicated for the fire and police departments.
clone make a near or exact reproduction, especially of a piece of equipment or an organism • any scientist who wishes to clone a human being faces an ethical dilemma • The gene has been cloned and sequenced.
replicate create an identical version of something • undocumented experiments that cannot be replicated in the laboratory • The original findings have been successfully replicated by other investigators.
re-create make something that looks the same as something that either no longer exists or exists in a different place • The theatre company has gone all out to re-create the play’s 1970s ambience. • The stories attempt to re-create the magic of childhood.
criticise, censure, castigate, blast, condemn, find fault with, pick holes in, nitpick
express disapproval of or dissatisfaction with someone or something
criticise express disapproval of or dissatisfaction with something • The new policy was strongly criticised by leading charities. • He has criticised the government for not launching an investigation.
censure make a formal, often public or official statement of disapproval • The three senators were censured by their peers. • It is not known whether the player will be censured for his bad sportsmanship.
castigate (formal) criticise or rebuke someone severely • In her speech she castigated her political opponent for exaggerating the problem. • He was castigated as an alarmist by the rest of the profession.
blast (informal) criticise someone severely • She blasts homeowners who waste water during the drought. • The Olympic champion yesterday blasted critics who claim sport is driven by endorsement.
condemn give an unfavourable judgement on someone or something • The committee condemned the ruling for denying care to those who need it most. • This breach of medical confidentiality was strongly condemned by the patient’s attorney.
find fault with criticise someone, often unfairly • He finds fault with everything I do. • It is difficult to find fault with this entertaining and lively account.
pick holes in look for and find mistakes, particularly in an argument • pick holes in someone’s ideas • I invited them to pick holes in my paper before I did the final version.
nitpick find fault, often unjustifiably, with insignificant details • You’d have thought he would be easy to work with, but Maria said he was always nitpicking. • We’re nitpicking now at the difference between the words fundamentally and basically.
deduce, infer, assume, reason, conclude, work out, figure out
reach a logical conclusion
deduce come to a logical conclusion, often without using all the relevant information • While it is relatively easy to deduce a cause from an effect, it is more difficult to predict effects from causes. • From the bustle and activity we deduced that a guest was expected.
infer draw a conclusion from specific circumstances or evidence • We can infer from the witty menu that the owner has a sense of humour.
assume accept something as true without checking or confirming it • She had always assumed that her mother was born in Paris. • He could have reasonably assumed from what was said that his employment prospects were good.
reason consider information and use it to reach a conclusion in a logical way • Scott reasoned that it wouldn’t be Ann knocking at the door, because she had a key. • Either there was no burglar at all, or the burglar was not interested in diamonds, he reasoned.
conclude form an opinion or make a judgement after much consideration • The report concluded that a world recession was likely. • They were forced to conclude from the evidence that the case had been mishandled.
work out find a solution or explanation through careful thought or reasoning • Try and work out what the poem is about. • It took me a long time to work out the answers in the maths section.
figure out find a solution or reach a conclusion by careful thought or reasoning • Your task is to figure out what this phrase means. • I just can’t figure out what he’s going to do with himself all day long.
defeat, beat, conquer, vanquish, overcome, triumph over, thrash, trounce, wallop
win a victory
defeat win a victory over an enemy or competitor, or cause someone or something to fail • The Spartans succeeded in defeating their enemies. • She played a major role in defeating the bill.
beat defeat someone in a contest, or succeed in the face of difficulty • ’I am the champion of the world and will beat him again,’ he said. • After a paralysing accident a month ago, his goal is to walk again, though he realises he will have to beat the odds to do it.
conquer defeat and take control of a people in war, or succeed despite difficulty • They vowed to retake their conquered land. • She’s already conquered her toughest career challenge.
vanquish defeat someone decisively in a battle or competition • Pakistan emerge victorious and England are once again vanquished.
overcome win or succeed after a struggle • After struggling to overcome injuries and a serious illness, she finally got to play before the end of the season. • The effects of centuries of prejudice will not be easily overcome.
triumph over succeed against an opponent or against difficult odds • That one person’s letter of protest set off a chain of events, proving that sometimes right can triumph over the big corporations. • He triumphed over a formidable opponent.
thrash gain an easy decisive victory in a contest • Manchester United, who were thrashed in their last game by Liverpool, took the lead.
trounce defeat an opponent decisively • In the first-round match the veteran player fired powerful and well-placed groundstrokes to trounce the newcomer.
wallop (informal) hit hard; defeat a competitor easily and decisively • Though they got walloped in the first round, they were excited to have finally qualified for the tournament.
disagree, differ, argue, dispute, take issue with, contradict, agree to differ, be at odds
have or express a difference of opinion with someone
disagree have or put forward a different view or opinion • He strongly disagrees with what was said. • I have to disagree since I find the atmosphere quite stifling, not relaxing.
differ be different; have different opinions about something • People may well differ on the issue of whether this development is a good or a bad thing. • Accounts differ as to how many were present.
argue express disagreement, especially continuously or angrily • My brother and I argue about football all the time. • She knew better than to argue with him when he used that tone of voice.
dispute have a heated argument • For years, scholars have disputed this translation. • The two brothers are disputing the terms of their parents’ will.
take issue with disagree strongly with a person or an opinion • I would take issue with her view. • It is with regret that I have had to take issue with a fellow member of our committee.
contradict argue against the truth or correctness of a statement or claim • Let her tell her story and don’t contradict her. • Important witnesses are contradicting each other’s accounts.
agree to differ stop arguing and accept that the opposing viewpoints are irreconcilable • We might as well agree to differ about that and get along as well as we can. • If after discussion the social worker and client agree to differ with respect to the report’s content, both versions will be recorded.
be at odds be in disagreement • The Mayor seems to be at odds with his own officials over this question.
disapprove, frown on, object, criticise, condemn, deplore, denounce, censure
have an unfavourable opinion of something or someone
disapprove give a negative judgement of something based on personal standards • Why do you disapprove so strongly of my choice of car? • My aunt will disapprove if she finds out my sister has moved out.
frown on express dislike or disapproval of something • a practice that would be frowned on today • They come from an era when skimpy clothing was frowned on.
object be opposed to something, or express opposition • a petition objecting to the proposals • I don’t object to people smoking in their own homes.
criticise point out flaws or faults • The retailers have been sharply criticised for putting flyers on every car. • It is important to observe and praise the good things as often as you criticise the child.
condemn pass an unfavourable judgement on someone or something • The present system has been widely condemned as unfair and archaic.
deplore disapprove of something strongly • We deplore all use of violence. • I deeply deplore the government’s action.
denounce criticise or condemn something publicly and harshly • a letter to the Financial Times denouncing the government’s economic strategy • waiting for someone to denounce the wrongdoers
censure make a formal, often public or official, statement of disapproval • A partner with the firm was officially censured for unprofessional conduct.
follow, chase, pursue, tail, shadow, stalk, trail
go after or behind
follow take the same route behind another person • ’Will you please follow me,’ she said. • He’s usually closely followed by two bodyguards.
chase try to reach, catch or overtake another person who is in front • Once a pack of reporters had chased him to his car.
pursue make an effort to catch up with a person being followed • decide to pursue the thief
tail (informal) follow someone secretly for purposes of surveillance • The report claimed officers tailed him, tapped his phones and screened his mail.
shadow follow someone secretly, used especially of spies and detectives • Until he saw the photographs, he had had no idea he was being shadowed.
stalk try to get close to a person or hunted animal unobtrusively; follow and criminally harass a person obsessively • be accused of stalking the film star • a cat patiently stalking a bird
trail follow tracks or traces left by a person or animal no longer in sight • Luckily the snowfall enabled us to trail the deer.
gaze, gape, gawk, ogle, rubberneck, stare
look at someone or something steadily or at length
gaze look for a long time with unwavering attention • He gazed into her eyes. • People stood around gazing up at the arrivals board.
gape look at someone or something in surprise or wonder, usually with an open mouth • The boys gaped at the sportscar. • Matt gaped in astonishment.
gawk (informal) stare stupidly or rudely • There were crowds of people gawking at the sculpture.
ogle look steadily at someone to show sexual interest • Don’t let your date see you ogle anyone!
rubberneck (informal) stare at someone or something in an over-inquisitive or insensitive way • Rubbernecking drivers slowed in both directions to look at the wreckage.
stare look at someone or something directly and intently without turning one’s eyes away • She tried hard not to stare. • He stared in astonishment at the unwashed dishes that covered every surface.
get, acquire, obtain, gain, procure, secure
come into possession of something
get come to have something • He managed to get a job on a building site. • ’The public will get a raw deal,’ she claimed.
acquire come to possess something • the knowledge, skills and understanding that students are expected to acquire • He inherited some property and acquired more through marriage.
obtain get something, especially by making an effort or having the necessary qualifications • The best results are obtained from using quality materials. • You can obtain the forms you need from your bank.
gain get something desirable through effort, skill or merit • With daily physical therapy, I was gaining mobility in my knee. • Students are encouraged to look for jobs in the summer to gain work experience.
procure get something, especially with effort or special care • He procured the spare part he needed by ordering it from a catalogue.
secure get something, especially after using considerable effort to persuade someone to grant or allow it • She finally secured the agreement to buy her first house. • The team has secured significant support from two local firms.
guide, conduct, direct, lead, steer, usher
show someone the way
guide lead someone in the right direction • Another rescue team, guided by a search dog, located a baby that had survived the collapse of the building.
conduct take someone to or around a certain place • I was conducted by an attendant through a maze of corridors to an enormous room.
direct show or indicate the way • We didn’t see a sign to direct us to the Roman site.
lead show other people the way, usually by going ahead of them • She led us into the house and introduced us to her two sisters.
steer encourage someone to take a certain course • She steered them around the puddles.
usher escort someone to or from a place, especially a seat • She ushered them into her office.
harm, damage, hurt, injure, wound
weaken or impair someone or something
harm cause injury or damage to, have a bad effect on, something or someone • Smoking while pregnant harms the baby. • decisions that will harm the economy
damage spoil, break or injure an object so it is less useful, valuable or able to function; have a negative effect on something abstract • The bombings have damaged prospects for a negotiated settlement.
hurt cause physical or mental pain or harm to a person or animal • Laura tripped and fell, but didn’t hurt herself. • His words hurt.
injure cause physical harm to a person or animal, usually causing at least a temporary loss of function or use; harm something abstract such as reputation or pride • Two other people were seriously injured in the quake. • He crash-landed his light aircraft but walked away, suffering from nothing more than injured pride.
wound inflict physical harm on someone, especially from the use of a weapon, a violent incident, or a serious accident; upset or offend someone • be wounded in battle • He feels wounded by the accusations.
hesitate, pause, falter, stumble, waver, vacillate
show uncertainty or indecision
hesitate pause before doing or saying something, as a result of uncertainty or reluctance • He hesitated for a moment, then walked swiftly to the door. • Please do not hesitate to call me if you have any questions.
pause stop doing something briefly before continuing, or wait a moment before doing something • She paused for a moment to recover her self-possession. • Scarcely pausing for thought, she sat herself down at the keyboard and started to play.
falter show a loss of confidence, often by speaking with hesitation • the announcer faltered over the news headlines • In such circumstances, our allies might falter in their commitment to the defence treaty.
stumble trip; speak or act hesitatingly, confusedly or incompetently • He stumbled over his answer, not knowing what to say.
waver become unsure or begin to change from a previous opinion • The defendant never wavered from his story. • He saw the agony in her eyes and his resolve wavered.
vacillate be indecisive or irresolute, changing between one opinion and another • Her mind vacillated between laughing at her fears and expecting something terrible.
hinder, block, hamper, hold back, impede, obstruct
put difficulties in the way of progress
hinder delay or obstruct the development or progress of someone or something • Carrying so many bulky things will hinder your progress. • The completion of the project was hindered by bad weather.
block prevent movement through, into or out of something, or prevent something from taking place • The street was blocked for the parade. • Police blocked the tunnel until the fumes had cleared.
hamper prevent something from happening normally or as planned • The rescue effort, hampered by foul weather over the weekend, was resumed on Monday. • She claimed her injury did not hamper her in the race.
hold back keep something from happening, or restrain someone from doing something • The expense of data collection and analysis is holding back development in this area. • He stopped suddenly and held the child back.
impede interfere with the movement, progress or development of someone or something • We had no flashlights, but darkness did not impede our progress. • The two leaders agreed not to let their rival claims to offshore oil fields impede the development of trade.
obstruct cause a serious delay in action or progress; block a road or passageway • plead guilty to charges of conspiring to obstruct justice • Obstructing the exit doors can be dangerous.
imitate, copy, emulate, mimic, ape
adopt the behaviour of another person
imitate copy another person’s behaviour, voice or manner, sometimes to make fun of them • Children learn many skills by imitating their parents.
copy do exactly what someone else does • Lennie admired George and tried to copy him. • A puppy will often watch and copy an older dog’s actions.
emulate try to equal or surpass someone who is successful or admired • She has a tough act to follow in attempting to emulate her elder sister’s success. • He’s a great team-builder, and one whom I would like to emulate.
mimic imitate someone in a deliberate and exaggerated way, especially to amuse people • mimic the teacher’s home counties accent • She whined, mimicking a spoiled child.
ape imitate someone in an absurd or grotesque way • ape the lifestyle of the rich and famous
increase, expand, enlarge, extend, augment, intensify, amplify
make larger or greater
increase become or cause to become larger in number, quantity or degree • They increased admission prices by ten per cent last month. • a world of ever increasing financial pressures
expand become or cause to become larger or more extensive • Wood expands and contracts with temperature and humidity changes. • We bought the property next door, which gave us space to expand the business.
enlarge become, or cause something to become, larger generally, or broaden something in scope and detail • They enlarged the kitchen and created a home office. • The programme was enlarged to include short summer courses for younger children.
extend make greater in length or area, longer in time, or otherwise larger • Around the same time, both east and west breakwaters were extended. • The supermarket has extended its range to include vegan and gluten-free products.
augment (formal) add to something to make it larger or more substantial • augment the family income by doing some freelance work • The municipality needs new recruits to augment the existing police force.
intensify become, or cause something to become, greater in strength or degree • As fighting intensified, communication links became increasingly critical to the success of the mission. • The incident only intensified her determination to do something about the quality of the instruction her son was receiving.
amplify become, or cause something to become, louder, or greater in intensity or scope • The floor and walls amplify the noise. • attempt to amplify positive attitudes and reduce negative ones
kill, murder, assassinate, execute, put to death, slaughter, slay, put down, put to sleep
deprive of life
kill cause the death of a person or animal • Floods have killed at least three people and forced hundreds from their homes.
murder commit the crime of taking the life of another person deliberately and not in self-defence • She was found guilty of murdering a teaching colleague.
assassinate murder a public figure by a sudden violent attack • A police spokesperson told reporters that a plot to assassinate the pontiff had been foiled.
execute take someone’s life as part of a judicial or extrajudicial process • It was possible that the order would come to execute the prisoner.
put to death deliberately take someone’s life in accordance with a legal death sentence • put to death for treason
slaughter kill farm animals for food, or kill a person or people brutally • He said he’d slaughtered the calf humanely. • Hundreds of soldiers were slaughtered in the offensive.
slay (formal or literary) kill a person or animal • Cain plotted to slay his brother Abel.
put down or put to sleep kill a sick or injured animal • Some of the animals were beyond help and had to be put down.
make, produce, create, fashion, manufacture
bring something into existence
make bring something into existence • The concern is the top of the downhill course, where it is impossible to make artificial snow. • Both bottles are made from the same recyclable plastic.
produce make something in large quantities or in a commercial setting • The northern oil facility produces 5,000 gallons per day.
create make something using imagination and artistic skill, or cause something to exist • creating a work of fiction on this subject may present challenges • a building project designed to create employment and training opportunities
fashion make something by shaping and working raw materials, especially when using only the hands or handheld tools • an exquisite brooch fashioned from mother-of-pearl and gold
manufacture make something in large numbers, usually by machine in a factory • a plant manufacturing synthetic rubber
malign, defame, slander, libel, vilify
say or write something damaging about someone
malign criticise someone or something in a spiteful and misleading way • The initiative had already been much maligned in the press. • You’re maligning a man who was once your colleague and a friend.
defame make an attack on someone’s reputation with a view to damaging it • The lawyer says his former partner defamed him on a television news programme. • The company director explained, ’Our competitors have defamed our character and called us pirates.’
slander (legal term) make false accusations in speech that are damaging to someone’s reputation • Tensions remain high between the two countries, with each side slandering the other. • The former employee claimed the company had slandered her.
libel (legal term) make false and damaging accusations about someone in writing, signs or images • the detective claims that he was libelled in a television documentary
vilify make viciously damaging statements about someone • They maintain the answer to the problem of homelessness is not to vilify the vulnerable. • The candidate has been vilified as a toff with no experience, making use of his connections.
mistreat, abuse, ill-treat, maltreat, ill-use
treat someone or something wrongly or badly
mistreat treat someone or something badly or roughly • It was clear that some prisoners had been mistreated. • Children should be taught that mistreating animals is unacceptable.
abuse treat a person or animal cruelly or violently, especially on a regular or habitual basis • He was given a prison sentence for abusing his son. • She has been accused of abusing the animals in her care.
ill-treat or maltreat behave cruelly towards a person or animal • If one child in a family is maltreated, others in the same family are at high risk.
ill-use treat someone cruelly or unkindly • With a feeling of being ill-used, he started to clear up the remains of last night’s dinner.
misuse, abuse, misappropriate, misapply
use something for an inappropriate purpose
misuse put something to an inappropriate use • The former CEO is charged with misusing government subsidies.
abuse use in a wrong or inappropriate way something that should be used responsibly • A handful of cynical local officials have behaved deplorably by abusing their powers. • She admitted to having abused drugs and alcohol.
misappropriate take something, especially money, dishonestly and use it improperly or illegally • He was sentenced to twelve years in jail on charges of misappropriating company funds for personal use.
misapply use something badly or wrongly • He said the appeals court ’disregarded the facts and misapplied the law’.
nullify, abrogate, annul, repeal, invalidate, negate
put an end to the effective existence of something
nullify make something legally invalid or ineffective, or overturn something • Only the courts can nullify the decision. • The country’s military rulers nullified national elections after pro-democracy candidates won a landslide.
abrogate (formal) end an agreement or contract formally and publicly • The President abrogated the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty with Russia. • We cannot abrogate our international obligations.
annul declare something officially or legally invalid or ineffective • A court on Wednesday annulled the decree, saying it was illegal. • Many parties have called for the election results to be annulled because of alleged fraud.
repeal end a law officially • We would like to repeal the ban on hunting with hounds.
invalidate deprive something of its legal or other force or value • Failure to disclose all relevant changes may invalidate your insurance policy. • Does the result of this latest poll invalidate the findings of the earlier survey?
negate (formal) make something ineffective • This argument does not negate the point I am making.
object, protest, demur, remonstrate, expostulate
indicate opposition to something
object be opposed to something, or express opposition to it • Two companies objected strongly to the proposals. • I don’t object to people smoking in the privacy of their own homes.
protest express strong disapproval of or disagreement with something, or refuse to obey or accept something, often by making a formal statement or taking action in public • a peaceful demonstration of several hundreds of thousands protesting against the war • On the other side of the door, he heard Anne protesting loudly at having to meet with him.
demur raise objections in a hesitant or tentative way • In response to Alan’s offer, they at first politely demurred, but finally succumbed to his persuasion. • Janet was invited to go, but demurred, preferring to stay at home.
remonstrate reason or argue forcefully with someone against something • ’You don’t mean that!’ she remonstrated. • The court heard that the shop owner had remonstrated with the couple for unruly behaviour on his premises.
expostulate express strong disagreement or disapproval, or attempt to dissuade someone from doing something • ’Look here, Peter, don’t be ridiculous!’ expostulated Cynthia. • Now and again someone would try to expostulate with him, but he never changed his mind.
overlook, neglect, forget, omit
fail to do something
overlook fail to notice something or someone as a result of inattention, preoccupation or haste • Despite the value of their work, caregivers’ needs are often overlooked. • You seem to be overlooking one central fact.
neglect fail to give proper attention to someone or something, or fail to do something, especially owing to carelessness, forgetfulness or indifference • The previous speaker neglected to mention that unemployment has actually fallen. • They accused industry officials of neglecting safety standards.
forget fail, or fail to remember, to give due attention to someone or something • Don’t forget to bring a passport-sized photo with you. • I forgot to tell you that we’re bringing the dog.
omit fail to do something; leave out • I omitted the smaller beauty spots from the list to save space. • The organisers somehow omitted to inform members of the time of the meeting.
perform, do, carry out, fulfil, discharge, execute
complete an action or task
perform carry out an action or accomplish a task, especially when this requires skill or care, or is part of a set procedure • Six patients had the procedure performed under local anaesthesic. • Each child was to perform the same task within the specified length of time.
do complete an action or accomplish a task • I’ve got a lot of admin to do tomorrow. • A robot will do anything you ask it to.
carry out complete an action or task • Carry out the plan as we agreed.
fulfil do what is necessary for the successful accomplishment or realisation of something planned, promised or anticipated • promise to fulfil the request on time • The course will fulfil a requirement for his degree.
discharge (formal, of a responsibility) complete successfully • The people who take on the duties must be competent to discharge them.
execute put an instruction or plan into effect, or complete an action or procedure that requires skill and expertise • Once a plan is approved, the agency will execute it.
pull, drag, draw, haul, tow, tug, yank
move something towards oneself or in the same direction as oneself
pull move something towards oneself or in the same direction as oneself • They pulled their sledge ten miles without skis. • If you pull the cord, your light will come on.
drag move something large or heavy with effort across a surface • drag the crate over to the car • a scraping sound of something being dragged along the ground
draw pull something with a smooth movement • I reached out and drew her gently towards me. • He drew the note from his pocket.
haul pull something with a steady strong movement, often involving considerable effort • a train hauled by a steam locomotive • He grasped the narrow sill and hauled himself up.
tow pull something along behind by means of a rope or chain • The two boats were towed into port. • We had to tow the damaged car back to the repair shop.
tug pull at something with a sharp forceful movement, without necessarily moving the object • Frantically, I tried to tug my foot free. • The child approached and tugged at his arm, whining, ’I want to go home, Daddy.’
yank pull something suddenly and sharply with a single strong movement • He yanked the cable from the hook. • When the child stepped off the curb, she yanked him back.
question, quiz, interrogate, grill, give the third degree
ask for information
question ask someone for information, especially formally or officially and on a specific topic • Callers are questioned in detail about their symptoms.
quiz subject someone to persistent questions • Alix was being quizzed about her new boyfriend.
interrogate question someone systematically and intensively in a formal or official context, for example, in a court case • Police are interrogating two men and a woman arrested on Thursday.
grill (informal) question someone intensively • Lawyers on both sides grilled a DNA expert about his analysis of the blood found in the vehicle.
give the third degree (informal) question someone intensively, especially in an aggressive way • My mother gave me the third degree whenever I was out late.
recoil, flinch, quail, shrink, wince
draw back in fear or distaste
recoil move back suddenly and violently or react instinctively with fear, pain or disgust • As the snake got closer to her, she instinctively recoiled. • My legs were bare, and I recoiled in pain from the burning leather of the car seat.
flinch make a usually small backward physical movement because of fear or pain, or to avoid confronting something unpleasant • He flinched at the needle’s prick. • I’m not a coward, and I don’t flinch from trouble.
quail tremble or cower with fear or apprehension • Her voice was steady, but she quailed inwardly. • Pat quailed at the thought of being caught.
shrink move away physically from something because of fear or disgust, or feel reluctance to do something because of fear or apprehension • She shrank away in undisguised terror. • It was not the work I shrank from on my uncles’ farm, but the lack of freedom.
wince make an involuntary movement away from something in response to a stimulus such as pain or embarrassment • He shook his head and winced as she touched the cut. • Charles winced at the thought of what he must look like in his ridiculous costume.
recommend, advise, advocate, counsel, suggest
put forward ideas to someone deciding on a course of action
recommend suggest something approvingly • The report recommended a number of changes. • I would recommend that you try growing the following plant varieties that are suited to shade.
advise propose a certain course of action, or give advice in a relatively open and objective way • Your lawyer can advise you on the matters mentioned in this leaflet. • I would strongly advise against buying this model.
advocate support or speak in favour of something • They have never used, nor advocated the use of, violence. • We advocate the teaching of fire safety practices, starting with very young children.
counsel (formal or literary) advise someone on a course of action • Her cousin counselled Marie to delay her decision until she had had time to think things over. • The team manager counselled patience as the best strategy in the forthcoming match.
suggest propose something in a tentative way • I suggest that we open the subject for discussion. • This issue is suggested as an area for further research.
renew, recondition, renovate, restore, revamp
improve the condition of something
renew replace something that is worn, broken, or no longer suitable for use • The roof leaked badly and had to be renewed. • Bones usually constantly renew and rebuild themselves, but when someone has osteoporosis this doesn’t happen.
recondition return a machine or appliance to a good condition or working state by means of repairs or replacement of parts • reconditioned used cars • the workshop where they recondition the aircraft engines
renovate get something into a better state by means of repairs, redecoration or remodelling • newly renovated offices • money needed to renovate crumbling school buildings
restore return something to its original state after it has been damaged or has fallen into a poor condition • a fully restored flour mill dating to 1830 • The painting is newly cleaned and restored.
revamp improve the appearance, condition or structure of something by making sometimes superficial changes • a construction programme to revamp the city’s shabby waterfront • As the airline revamped its business, the workforce was reduced by about 900.
overhaul return something to its original or working state by means of extensive repairs, changes or adjustments • We stayed in the town while the ship was being overhauled. • Industry analysts had expected the company to overhaul its corporate structure.
refurbish bring something to a cleaner, brighter, more functional state • It would cost about one million less to refurbish the school than to build a new one. • refurbish the kitchen by buying new appliances
ridicule, deride, laugh at, mock, send up
belittle by making fun of someone or something
ridicule make fun of or mock someone or something in a contemptuous way • His feat has been ridiculed by reporters, who question whether he truly swam the whole distance, or whether he went some of the way in his support boat.
deride ridicule or show contempt for someone or something • Critics have derided his recent novels, but he still commands huge advances.
laugh at make scornful fun of someone or something • People laughed at our bulky winter jackets, but at least when the sun went down we were warm.
mock treat someone or something with scorn, often by cruel mimicking • It’s easy to mock, but you try doing it!
send up (informal) parody or mimic someone or something • We’d mercilessly send up Dad’s complete incompetence with tools, but he was a good sport about it.
safeguard, protect, defend, guard, shield
keep safe from actual or potential damage or attack
safeguard prevent something or someone from being harmed, badly treated, or lost • They promised to safeguard local industry while promoting a free-market approach. • measures to safeguard our children against bicycle injuries
protect keep someone or something from harm or damage • advice on protecting your skin against sun damage • efforts to protect areas of outstanding beauty from overuse
defend ward off an actual or threatened attack • Fresh troops were sent in to defend the beleaguered capital. • Charlie defended himself well, and eventually beat off his attackers.
guard work to prevent damage, loss or attack through vigilance and taking defensive measures • The main prison was guarded by armed officers. • Guard against misuse of your credit card.
shield prevent harm, damage or attack by using a physical barrier or by intervening in a protective way • shield young children from alarming news bulletins • Dark glasses shielded his eyes from the sun.
steal, pinch, filch, nick, purloin, pilfer, embezzle, misappropriate
take property unlawfully
steal take something that belongs to someone else, illegally or without the owner’s permission • a 1992 robbery in which more than £20 million was stolen from a Geneva bank
pinch (informal) steal something • Who’s pinched my wallet?
filch (informal) steal something furtively and opportunistically, usually a small item or something of little value • He filched the wood he needed from his neighbour’s garden.
nick (informal) steal something, usually of relatively little value • My bike’s been nicked!
purloin (formal) steal something, sometimes used humorously or euphemistically • They pledge to prosecute sales of purloined software, pirated videos, and the like. • The former weapons inspector told how he had once caught a member of his team purloining a top-secret document.
pilfer steal small items of little value, especially habitually • He accused the children of pilfering fruit from his stand. • It was estimated that 25 per cent of food sent to the refugee camps was being pilfered and sold on the black market.
embezzle take for improper or illegal personal use money or property that has been given in trust by others • The former executive embezzled company funds and will be prosecuted.
misappropriate take something, especially money, dishonestly or to use it for an improper or illegal purpose • The treasurer insisted that no company money had been misappropriated and used for personal expenses. • The defendant was found guilty of misappropriating public funds.
teach, educate, train, instruct, coach, tutor, school, drill
impart knowledge or skill in something
teach impart knowledge or skill to someone by instruction or example • She taught maths at the school for twenty-one years. • He taught me a great deal about crosswords, and I taught him how to swim.
educate increase the knowledge or develop the abilities of someone by formal teaching or training, especially in a school or college context • a cost-effective way of educating children to meet their individual needs • The police stress that they want to educate bad drivers as much as bring them to court.
train teach the skills necessary for a task or job by means of instruction, observation and practice • It is important for professionals to be trained to work with volunteers. • We hired new staff and trained them in skills ranging from bookkeeping to business administration.
instruct teach someone a subject, methodology or skill, not necessarily in a school or college context • a manual instructing users how to run the computer software • get a professional to instruct us in scuba-diving
coach give special instruction to one person or a small group of people, especially in preparation for an exam, or to teach sporting, artistic or life skills • On Saturdays, I used to coach the local rugby team.
tutor give someone individual instruction in a subject or skill • A native French speaker, he has been hired to tutor five students after school for their French exam.
school train someone in a skill or area of expertise in a thorough and detailed way • She had been schooled in good manners by her parents.
drill teach something to someone by means of repeated exercises and practice • The most common intonation patterns should be drilled early in the course. • The recruits were drilled endlessly on the parade ground.
tear, rend, rip, split
pull or come apart by force
tear pull something apart, either by accident or on purpose, or come apart • He tore the paper into little strips. • She was always climbing trees and tearing her clothes.
rend pull something apart violently, or be pulled apart violently • Something exploded with a sound of rending metal and shattering glass.
rip tear something with a sudden rough action, accompanied by a distinctive noise, especially accidentally • With one determined movement, she ripped open the envelope. • You can’t wear those flimsy clothes skateboarding — if you fall off, you’ll rip them to shreds.
split divide something with a single movement, usually by force and into two parts • he was splitting wood to start a fire • Split the cake in half horizontally and sandwich it together with jam and buttercream.
throw, chuck, fling, heave, hurl, toss, cast
send an object through the air
throw use a physical movement to cause something to go through the air • Fred applauded and threw his hat into the air. • Police used blue-dyed water after a few pro-democracy protesters threw petrol bombs at passing vehicles.
chuck (informal) throw something in a reckless or aimless way • I chucked the application forms in the bin.
fling throw something fast using a lot of force • She flung herself face down on the bed. • Johnny flung aside his jacket and raced to help his brother.
heave (informal) pull or throw something large or heavy • He heaved the massive, rusty door open.
hurl throw something with great force • Demonstrators hurled stones at the police. • His opponent seized him and hurled him to the ground.
toss throw something small or light in a casual or careless way • One of the children tossed a ball high in the air. • David sat back in his armchair, tossing aside his magazine.
cast (literary) throw something in a particular direction • He was cast overboard by the force of a huge wave.
try, attempt, endeavour, strive
make an effort to do something
try make an effort or an attempt to do or achieve something
• I tried so many times to convince her to go, but it was useless.
• I will try to get the report to you by Tuesday.
attempt make an effort to do something, especially without much expectation of success • There are various theories that attempt to explain the phenomenon of dreaming. • Several climbers had already attempted the ascent, without success.
endeavour make a serious and sincere effort to do or achieve something • They endeavoured to include every single family in the history of the town.
strive make persistent efforts to achieve something • At this hotel we are constantly striving to improve the level of service to our guests. • Competing firms must strive to satisfy their customers or they will not prosper.
use, employ, make use of, utilise
put something to use
use put something into action or service • In photography, different lenses are used for different purposes. • When talking about computers we use the word ’hardware’ to describe the machine and its accessories.
employ make use of something such as a tool or a resource • the high-pressure selling techniques sometimes employed by door-to-door salespeople • There are seven base metals that are commonly employed in the making of coins and artefacts.
make use of use what is readily available, especially in a sensible or economical way • A split-level house makes maximum use of land. • Members of staff are encouraged to make use of the new health centre before or after work, or during their lunch break.
utilise (often formal) use something in a way that takes advantage of its potential • Karate is a method of fighting that utilises all parts of the body as weapons. • We need to ensure that the country’s varied and rich reserves are utilised in the most efficient way.
want, desire, wish, long, yearn, covet, crave
seek to have, do or achieve something
want feel a need or desire for something • What do you want to do this summer? • All I wanted was to pass my driving test and buy my first car.
desire want something very strongly • He needed to conquer his phobia if he was to lead the normal, happy life he so desired.
wish have a strong, sometimes unrealistic, desire to have or to do something • ’I wish I could live in a big apartment with high ceilings,’ he said. • ’I do wish we could help her somehow,’ sighed Christine.
long have a strong desire for someone or something, especially something difficult to achieve • We’ve all been longing to see him. • She’d been longing for peace and quiet so that she could finish her book.
yearn want something very much, especially with a feeling of sadness when it seems unlikely that it can ever be obtained • people who yearn to be free
covet have a strong desire to possess something, especially something that belongs to someone else • This is his third failure to get the job he so covets. • He covets his brother’s sportscar.
crave want something very much, especially when this desire is physical • We’d been driving all day and craved a hot meal. • Will craved the attention of his fans.
yield, capitulate, submit, succumb, surrender
yield give way to something such as force, pressure, entreaty or persuasion • The government would not yield to pressure, she promised. • Many people yield to the temptation to smoke although they realise the health implications.
capitulate stop resisting a superior force, especially one that seems unbeatable • If we capitulate to these demands, we will lose what we have worked so hard to gain.
submit accept someone else’s authority or will, especially reluctantly or under pressure • We don’t intend to submit to that kind of pressure. • The defeated army had no choice but to submit.
succumb give in to something owing to weakness or the failure to offer effective opposition • In 1239 the city succumbed to Tartar invasion. • The actor, who once famously turned his back on Hollywood, has succumbed to temptation by taking a role in a blockbuster film.
surrender give way to the power of another person and stop offering resistance, usually after active opposition • Still the enemy refused to surrender. • Two of the suspects walked out of the woods and surrendered to the authorities.