Title in English: Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary
Title in Chinese: 漢語近義詞用法詞典
Author: Teng Shou-hsin (鄧守信)
Tags: Vocabulary usage, Synonym distinction, Vocabulary study, Style guide
Level: Upper intermediate, advanced
Having successfully overcome the problems one encounters as a beginner student, one soon realises that Chinese (or any other language radically different from one’s native language) presents a tricky problem. When I learn English as a native speaker of Swedish, I might know how to say something in Swedish and then ask what the corresponding word might be in English. Often, there is a corresponding word and I learn it. Learning Chinese doesn’t work like that, though, because there are almost never any such thing as a “corresponding word”. Words might be translated successfully, but only in a given context. Change the context and the translation might become weird, misleading or wrong.
This is where books like Chinese Synonyms Usage Dictionary by Teng Shou-hsin come in handy. In this comprehensive volume, the author sets out to explain a large number of near synonyms and their usages. He does so in an elaborate and detailed way, usually spending at least one page (but often more) on any given group of synonyms. These explanations are structured as follows. First, each of the words are explained individually in English, including examples in Chinese, with transcriptions and translations to English. Then, the difference between the words are highlighted and a comparison table included. This table presents various ways the words might be used and then notes if a given word can or cannot be used in this way. So, we might learn that a certain word is formal, literary, can work as both a verb and a noun (but not an adjective). There are also additional examples to show what kind of sentences a given word can occur in. Entries typically look like this:
In all, there are around 700 synonyms described in this book, which makes it quite likely that those typically causing problems for you will be present, so I suggest this book as reference literature. However, I think it’s even more useful as a way to study vocabulary. The reason I recommend this book for upper intermediate and advanced learners is that it’s probably more helpful when sorting out problems rather than when learning the words the first time. Browsing through this book, I know almost all the words, but reading the explanations, I can truly feel how new connections are being created in my Chinese language web. It enhances what I already know, adds to it and makes me more confident about how to use the words.
One of the major advantages of this book is that the descriptions and discussions are detailed enough to be truly useful. This is not a mere dictionary that will give you a brief definition, no, here you get several sentences describing the word and how it’s used. The English is impeccable, which is more than can be said of most other books on learning Chinese. The comparisons at the end of each synonym group are extremely useful, to-the-point and often highlights what you really need to remember. I find the tables less useful, but that might be because I use this book more as a way to actively study vocabulary rather than for reference.
In summary, this Chinese Synonyms Usage Usage Dictionary is well worth the money. It deserves a place in any upper intermediate or advanced learner’s library. Or to be more honest, this book is perfect to keep handy wherever you tend to have a few minutes to spare (in the kitchen, on your bedside table, in the bathroom). Occasionally reading a little bit about confusingly similar words in Chinese will gradually improve you vocabulary. I can think of no other book or website that does the job as well as the author of this book does here. Check it out!
Tips and tricks for how to learn Chinese directly in your inbox
I've been learning and teaching Chinese for more than a decade. My goal is to help you find a way of learning that works for you. Sign up to my newsletter for a 7-day crash course in how to learn, as well as weekly ideas for how to improve your learning!