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 We all know that near-synonyms cause major headaches for language learners. Due to the inadequacy of Chinese-English dictionaries, we can’t simply look up synonyms in a dictionary and immediately tell the significant difference between them. Using Chinese-Chinese dictionaries is slightly better, but isn’t enough except in a few cases (you need the right dictionary and the right near-synonyms). Also, most learners aren’t at a level where they can comfortably read Chinese-Chinese dictionaries.

synonymsTo give you an idea of what I’m talking about, look at these five words: 特色,特点 (特點),特性,特质 (特質) and 特征 (特徵). They all translate to something like “characteristic” in English, but they are still not interchangeable in most cases and mean different things or have different collocations when appearing in the same sentence.

Do we actually need to study near-synonyms? Isn’t massive exposure enough?

Before we look into “how” to deal with near-synonyms, we should say a few words about “why”. I’m a big fan of massive exposure in general and I think it’s possible to get very far simply by reading and listening a lot. However, as you will notice if you use one of the solutions suggested later in this article and use search engines to try to find discussions about the synonyms, you’ll find that native speakers are sometimes also confused about the usage of these words. They might use them occasionally, but asked about the difference between them, they sometimes aren’t so sure.

Explicit knowledge plus exposure is the solution

The key is to have an idea of what the difference is when you listen and read (which you should still do a lot, of course). If you have no clue what to look for, you risk hearing the words hundreds of times, but because you don’t know anything about the difference, you get no corrective feedback at all. Some words are functionally identical and are interchangeable in sentences, but yet mean different things. If you don’t get that difference in meaning, exposure, no matter how much, won’t solve your problem.

Instead, I think you should learn a little bit about the difference between the words (see below for some practical advice on how to do this) and then pay attention to how these words are used in context. If you know the difference between them and see them in a text or hear them spoken, you can gradually solidify your knowledge about how they are used.

How to sort out near-synonyms in Chinese

Here are some things you can try (but remember the rules of successful language question triage):

  • Use more than one dictionary. Just because the first dictionary didn’t give you any clues, don’t give up, perhaps other dictionaries have better definitions and examples. If you’re okay with Chinese-Chinese dictionaries, try at least one. It might not help much, but it’s much more likely to help than any Chinese-English dictionary. For more about dictionaries, check this article.
  • Search for the terms on Google. This is much more effective than you might think. The likelihood is that other people have asked the same question and you might find the answer by searching for old discussions. If you can’t read Chinese comfortably, either include “English” in your search (thus enabling you to find Chinese people learning English) or search for pages in English (this is of more limited use, though). I have written more about using search engines here.
  • If your Chinese is okay, use Baidu. Apart from the general dictionary (which is very useful), there is also a section called 百度知道 which has lots of discussions, questions and answers. Provided that the words are actually very close to each other in Chinese (i.e. it’s not just the result of the words being close in your native language, but not Chinese), you will probably find something. However, do note that just because a native speaker says that something is right, that’s not necessarily the case.
  • Post your question online. If you have tried the above two methods and still have no clue, you can post your question either on Chinese-Forums or on Chinese Stack Exchange. Both these sites are incredibly useful, but make sure you show other people that you’ve tried to solve the question on your own, otherwise people might not volunteer their free time to help you. This includes searching through old posts making sure someone else hasn’t already asked the same question.
  • Ask an educated native speaker: If you’re enrolled in a program, asking your teach is obviously the ideal solution. However, be aware that native speakers don’t have perfect knowledge of their own language. Even if someone tells you that the difference between A and B is X, they might be wrong. Educated native speakers refer to people who have an education related to languages in some way (including teachers of course). They are much more likely to give you a good answer, especially if you give them some time to think.
  • Look through lots of sentences. This is time-consuming but very useful. Not only do you get to read a lot, you will also see the near-synonyms in action. This is something you can do on your own to figure out the differences between them (this  is hard), but it’s also something you definitely should do after learning about the difference between the words. Solidify your knowledge by seeing the words used in practice. Be aware that whatever rule you’ve found for how to use the words will never work 100%. That’s okay. If it covers 90% that’s already very good. Check this post for some suggested word banks to use.
  • Read books about synonyms. There are books available that deal specifically with near-synonyms, although most of them are in Chinese. Here are a few you can check out: Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary, 1700對近義詞語用法對比, 漢字說清楚. Books like these aren’t useful only as reference material. Just put them somewhere where you usually have some extra time (close to your bed, the bathroom) and read through an entry or two when you have a few minutes to spare.

To be honest, cracking the problem of near-synonyms is very hard at times, especially if your question doesn’t belong to the most frequently asked questions about Chinese usage. What makes it even harder is that there are always exceptions or strange cases, but as I have argued in an earlier article, you should spend 90% of the time on 90% of the cases, so don’t concern yourself too much with the 10% of cases that don’t follow the pattern you have found. Also, if an answer is hard to find, you should also consider giving and just spend your time elsewhere.

Conclusion

Dealing with near-synonyms in Chinese is really hard without any guidance. The steps I’ve described above should help you sort these problems out on your own in case you can’t ask your teacher or are studying on your own. If you have any other ways of dealing with near-synonyms or other sources that might help, let me know!


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11 Responses to Dealing with near-synonyms in Chinese as an independent learner

  1. Corey says:

    I often use mdbg.net, and one of the features in that dictionary is that it provides a link to the entry in
    http://www.jukuu.com

    This web site gives example usages of words. A very useful feature is up on the right where it shows a pie chart of the meanings. Above the pie chart are hyperlinks to example usages for each particular meaning.

  2. [...] and distinguishing between the usage of near-synonyms can be a daunting task. Olle Linge from Hacking Chinese gives a few pointers on how to tackle these tricky words that may look like they could be used [...]

  3. Tim L. says:

    The last time I studied Chinese at a Chinese university (at what I would now call a high intermediate level), in 2010, one of our textbooks would include a set of near-synonyms explained quite clearly in each chapter. I would understand it all perfectly, but since we studied for exams, many of the subtle differences were forgotten after the exams. I now sometimes find myself wishing I had the textbooks at hand, specifically for these near-synonym cases… good explanations, wrong motivation for memorizing them.

    • Olle Linge says:

      I’m guessing this is the typical over-emphasis on output rather than input. I don’t think it’s a good idea to focus too much on subtle differences between words that the student hasn’t heard in context several times already. By the way, what textbook series did you use? Sounds interesting.

      • May says:

        I am currently using 博雅汉语高级I. It has a lot of near synonym lessons after each text. For example: 深邃/深刻;提示/提醒;得意/满意;烦恼/苦恼;忧郁/忧愁;嘲笑/讥笑 for the first lesson.

  4. Evetei says:

    A few years ago,I read 汉语八百词 from cover to cover, which was a wonderful way to get in the grammar/synonyms and my reading practice in Chinese all at the same time.

    BTW, your website is excellent!
    Thank you!

  5. wkwrd says:

    The above article pic’s explanation:
    「特性」: Qualities (The nature aspect of something)

    「特質」: Features / Characteristics (Mostly used on the inner, not-so-obvious aspect of something/someone; Personalities; Qualities)

    「特徵」: Features / Characteristics (Outer traits, like how something/someone looks and feels…etc)

    「特色」: Features / Qualities / Characteristics that stand out from the rest; Special Features

    「特點」: Special Points

    Oh, and another nice online dictionary to recommand:
    http://tw.dictionary.search.yahoo.com/

    • wkwrd says:

      Notice in this example how we define “inner” and “outer”:

      1.「中文的特徵」-> Regarding how the tool “Chinese” was “formed” , “used”, or “looked” from outside -> Use this to talk about the Grammar and Sentence Structure stuff.

      2.「中文的特質」-> Regarding the Nature, or the Attribrute of the tool “Chinese”.(it’s hard to learn…etc)

  6. Livonor says:

    I didn’t had any problems with them until now, kanji and context make them clear most of the time. Here’s my personal interpretation of those words:

    特徴 The most common, refers to someone “special property” such a unusual skill

    特質 hardness, heat resistance, and other physical properties

    特色 only saw this guy once in old Chinese passaport in a museum, it seems to refers to visible differences in a person such a skin color etc

    特性 I don’t have much insight in this one, but 性 seems to gives a generic “natural” idea of property, like in “chemical properties”

    特點 Never saw this one, I don’t have a clue about what it can mean

    • Olle Linge says:

      Just to clarify, these words are fairly easy to understand properly in context, but not that easy to use actively yourself. There’s some more info about this here if you’re interested. As you can see, it’s not that straightforward.

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