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.
To 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 consider giving up and just spend your time elsewhere.
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!