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Consider the following sentence:

Due to my low reputation on SE, I was tentative (okay, "fearful" is more _____) in posting to meta.SE.

The context of the statement might the top of a post, as a kind of "apology introduction" before moving on to the main topic. I consider this to be in the realm of informal conversational English.

I find it interesting that a lot of words can fill in the blank. For example:

  • okay, "fearful" is more apropos
  • okay, "fearful" is more realistic
  • okay, "fearful" is more like it
  • okay, "fearful" is more timely [an "almost but not good enough" fit]
  • okay, "fearful" is more right
  • okay, "fearful" is more descriptive
  • okay, "fearful" is more honest
  • okay, "fearful" is more true
  • okay, "fearful" is more exact
  • okay, "fearful" is more indicative of the situation

These all say "pretty much the same thing". It seems like they are synonymous but not necessarily synonyms. Could it be the idiomatic phrase/style/humor is guiding the meaning:

[Main clause stating some condition with an understated tone] (well, perhaps [emphatic tone word] is [what goes here is allowed more variation than normal])

So this is my question:

Would these just be called synonyms? Distant synonyms? Synonymous? And also, is the idiomatic construction allowing a wider semantic distance for the blank?

  • 1
    I think there is an interesting question in here somewhere, but, as it stands, it is not a good fit for EL&U. From the help page: Chatty, open-ended questions diminish the usefulness of our site. english.stackexchange.com/help/dont-ask You could move the question to meta, or make your question more objective by changing it to ask about why English has so many synonyms compared to other languages, or something similar. (Also, you forgot "appropriate" :) – nxx Mar 2 '14 at 11:48
  • I cannot believe it. You mean "What's up with that?" is not specific enough!?!? :) – CoolHandLouis Mar 2 '14 at 11:57
  • Haha. I just think it would be difficult to answer, and therefore a "nonconstructive" question. Not my downvote, by the way. I think this could be an interesting question, phrased differently. To be honest, I'm not sure what you mean by "is something else going on here?" - do you mean historically/culturally/socially, or still something to do with linguistics? – nxx Mar 2 '14 at 12:01
  • @CoolHandLouis: You'll have to excuse my ignorance, but I must admit I don't actually know exactly what reply/response your "What's up with that?" is supposed to solicit. In my vernacular, if it's a "genuine" question it means "I don't think there's anything wrong with 'that', and I challenge you to justify anyone thinking there is". Other than that it's just something stand-up comics say to mean "That's weird/funny haha!". – FumbleFingers Mar 2 '14 at 13:29
  • FYI I updated this question to add focus. I'll delete this comment when appropriate. Maybe this is more of a linguistics question... I don't know. – CoolHandLouis Mar 3 '14 at 18:47
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These all say "pretty much the same thing".

From the list of examples, you have both "honest" and "descriptive" which have wildly different meanings, intents and connotations. These are not synonyms.

The main problem with the question you are asking is that you have an artificially restricted situation. The variations should include variations such as "less dishonest" or "a fair way to say it" and you can scope out even further to modifications such as:

Due to my low reputation on SE, I was tentative (read: fearful) in posting to meta.SE.

At the end of the day, you simply have a meaning to convey and English provides many different paths to get to that particular meaning. The only qualification that matches your original examples is "adjective that helps compare 'tentative' and 'fearful'". The specific comparisons are rather different (e.g. "honest" versus "descriptive") and there isn't anything about this particular construction that couldn't be replaced by an entirely different phrase (e.g. "read:")

Thus, the only interesting question I see is how to describe this particular meaning. You offer:

[Main clause stating some condition with an understated tone] (well, perhaps [emphatic tone word] is [what goes here is allowed more variation than normal])

What is really happening is a deliberate shift in connotation that forces the reader to update their understanding of the situation to match the author's. In this case, you are providing three key pieces of information:

  1. You are fearful
  2. You don't want to admit you are fearful
  3. You are willing to admit you don't want to admit you are fearful because this playfully solves the problem from (2)

Why (3) works is a question of rhetoric and probably outside of the scope for this site. But the fundamental point is that you need to convey (3) and an extremely efficient way to do that is to use a word that allows you to shift from a subtle connotation to a self-depreciating connotation. The list of words, phrases or conventions that accomplish this is massive. While you can certainly find large batches of synonyms on the list, the list is not restricted to one set of synonyms.

To directly answer your questions:

Would these just be called synonyms? Distant synonyms? Synonymous?

No, they would not be called synonyms. The closest relevant term I can think of is "self-aware, self-depreciating rhetorical device" and that describes the function of the entire clause. I don't know if there is a more technical term to describe this.

And also, is the idiomatic construction allowing a wider semantic distance for the blank?

Yes, the construction is extremely flexible and has many different variants. Some of the most common:

... tentative (read: fearful) ...

... tentative (read as: fearful) ...

... tentative (*cough* fearful *cough*) ...

... tentative (er, fearful [X]) ...

... tentative (okay, fearful [X]) ...

... tentative (well, fearful [X]) ...

[X] could be anything from your list or similar lists or, sometimes, simply nothing at all. The list of "er/okay/well" options is also much larger. And you will occasionally see the positions of "tentative" and "fearful" swapped:

... fearful (uh, tentative -- yeah, tentative is a better word for it) ...

  • Both this and @FumbleFingers answer are excellent. Thank you for the attention given to this question. – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 19:57
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    After a few years I read this answer again. It was so spot on it's an absolutely excellent answer. It dealt with the pragmatics of the issue which may not be specific to this stack but was the exact issue I was struggling with. Thanks again! – CoolHandLouis May 12 '16 at 0:02
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I think OP's basic premise is flawed. My position, as reflected here, is...

Any serious writer or professional translator will tell you that there is no such thing as a true synonym. (A word having the same or nearly the same meaning as another in the language.)

There are numerous "devices" whereby a speaker can indicate that he's unable to convey his exact intended meaning using a single word, of which OP's example is just one...

1: wordA (okay, wordB is more [honest, accurate, whatever]
2: wordA (perhaps I should say wordB)
3: wordA, rather than wordB,
4: wordA/wordB
etc., etc,...

Obviously in any such context, it's unlikely the speaker/writer thinks the two words are synonyms. If he did, why bother to use both?. In that preceding sentence, for example, obviously I don't think speaker and writer are normally synonyms - I used that form because I don't know/can't think of a single word for person who produces a spoken or written "utterance".

And it's also worth noting that the last word in the preceding paragraph illustrates yet another such "device". In that context, since I know most people will understand it to mean something spoken, I put "utterance" in scare quotes to show I'm using the word in an extended sense. Unlike the last word of the first sentence of this paragraph, where the scare quotes indicate that I'm using "device" in the highly-restricted sense of referring back to my earlier use of the term. Note that I'd still have put it in quotes even if I hadn't done so for the earlier use (which imho would be perfectly okay).


In short, usually it's not so much that multiple words "fit so well". It's more a matter of saying that no single word fits well enough, so we offer multiple alternatives that are "close" to what we mean. Often, with "guidance" pointers (okay, perhaps, rather than above), to give the reader/audience an idea of how close each alternative might be to the exact intended meaning.

Of course, less competent speakers might not be sure exactly what any of the alternatives "mean". So they might throw several in, hoping one will be correct.

  • @outisnihil , would you please add that as an answer? – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 19:58
  • Rewritten slightly and added as an answer. Also +1 FumbleFingers for a good answer. – outis nihil Mar 11 '14 at 20:00
  • -1 since @FumbleFingers started with "I think OP's basic premise is flawed." Just joking :) +1 for excellent treatment. – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 20:14
  • @CoolHandLouis: The question text has been through a fair number of revisions, but as I recall there was always a suggestion that WordB might be used more "loosely" than WordA in any such constructions. And although my first sentence above was primarily targeted at the notion of calling WordA/B "synonyms", I also don't think there's any justification for the idea of the second alternative being any more "approximate" than the first one. In fact, it's very often the opposite, in that WordB is often a more exact term in the specific context. – FumbleFingers Mar 11 '14 at 21:15
  • @FumbleFingers In re-reading this (back from original revision), I think there was a misunderstanding? In terms of your designations, I was saying that all instances of WordB/PhraseB were synonymous, and this was due perhaps forced. I think it's a form of linguistic "semantic coercion". – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 21:42
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I'd say what's happening here is that we have functionally related words with different denotative meanings (different semantic coverage), not synomyms.

To me, synonyms are words with the same denotative meaning, even though they will nearly always have at least slightly different connotative meanings. In this sense, English is particularly rich in synonyms because it has borrowed heavily from many different languages; using an Anglo-Saxon-derived word and a Latin-derived word with the same denotative meaning will by itself express slightly different things.

  • I'm thinking this is close to what is occuring. Functionally related, similar denotation/connotation which is being brought into focus by the structure of the idiomatic style. The idiomatic style is forcing a certain connotation to stand out. – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 20:16
  • Also, I think this is related to linguistic "semantic coercion", which according to your answer, you may have interest. – CoolHandLouis Mar 11 '14 at 21:44

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