Synonyms with Subtle Different Meanings

In this lesson, I talk about “near-synonyms”. Now, I will just start by saying that there are very few perfect synonyms in English. Perfect synonyms are words that can be used interchangeably in every situation. 

So, what is a near synonym? Near synonyms are words that mean almost the same thing, but they can’t be exchanged in every situation. 


Sometimes this is just a matter of formality, for example the words ‘daddy’ and ‘father’.  Father is obviously more formal – you would not receive a formal letter from a government department referring to your father as your ‘daddy’.

Other words that show degrees of formality are the verbs begin and start. Begin is a bit more formal. You might hear it in a formal setting, like an examination.

You may begin your examination.

But there are other differences between begin and start. We’re more likely to use start to show something happening quickly, like a race.

Take your place, the race is about to start!

Whereas begin is usually for something that happens more gradually. I am beginning to lose weight.

But please note, when you describe turning on an engine, always use start. You start a vehicle – car, plane, boat etc and you start a lawnmower or a generator, you don’t begin them!

End & Finish

We’ve done the beginning, now let’s skip to the end! We have end and finish – we can use them both as verbs.

End can imply that something was stopped or terminated abruptly.

Any more bad publicity will end that politician’s career.
I ended my phone contract because I could get a better deal elsewhere.

Finish is more about completing a task.

Have you finished your homework? – We wouldn’t say have you ended your homework? It would sound odd!
We hope to finish the building project by October.

Both end and finish can also be nouns meaning the final part of something. But we use them in slightly different ways.

End can show the conclusion of a period of time.

The end of the year. It sounds unnatural to say the finish of the year.

Or a story – you will often see ‘The End’ at the conclusion of a story or movie.

But you can use end and finish as synonyms to show the completion or final stage of an activity – The end of the race. The finish of the race.

A good dessert is the perfect finish to a lovely meal.
A good dessert is the perfect end to a lovely meal. They both work!

But if you want to talk about the whole of an event from its inception until its conclusion, use the correct collocation. From beginning to end OR from start to finish. Don’t mix them up or it will sound weird and unnatural!

From beginning to end, that movie was boring!
I couldn’t put that book down from start to finish.


Collocations are another reason we can’t always substitute one word for another.

The adjectives suitable and appropriate are near synonyms for this reason. We use suitable to describe a person, purpose or situation, but we don’t use appropriate when talking about people. It’s about behaviour or content. And it has a more formal tone.

A suitable person for a job is one who is qualified and capable of doing the job well. You wouldn’t say that someone is an ‘appropriate’ person for the job.

We can describe clothing as either suitable or appropriate. There is a subtle difference here. If you use suitable to describe clothing, you are referring to its purpose.

We need to buy some suitable clothes for camping. (The clothes are good to use for that purpose)

But if you use appropriate to describe clothing, this is more about the clothing being especially ‘right’ or proper for that situation.

For example – you wouldn’t walk into a formal wedding wearing a skimpy bikini! That is not appropriate clothing to wear. But the same bikini might be regarded as suitable clothing for a pool or beach party.

Appropriate clothing for a woman to enter a mosque, would be clothing that completely covers the body, and a head covering. Now, it is possible to use suitable because the clothing is good for that purpose, but using appropriate has a further implication of the clothing being especiallyproperfor that situation.

We would normally use appropriate to describe behaviour or content, as I mentioned before. This can imply the moral correctness of the behaviour or content.

Shouting and laughing loudly is not appropriate behaviour for a funeral.

Unless that particular culture deals with their grief in such a way – in that case the behaviour might be appropriate. So, culture is another consideration. Clothing and behaviour that is appropriate for one culture might be inappropriate for another.

For a movie, website, book or anything with content, you can use suitable as well as appropriate. In this case suitable implies that the content is purposefully made for that group of people.

For example: In the UK if a movie or television show is rated U then it is suitable for children. It was made with children in mind.

But using appropriate adds a level of formality and shows that it is especially good for that group of people. But we probably use this more in the negative – not appropriate or inappropriate. Inappropriate material might be offensive or cause harm to a particular group of people, such as children or a religious group.

That YouTube channel is not appropriate for children.

Or it might be offensive and harmful to all people in general.

Inappropriate images were removed from the website by police.

As always, comments and questions can be left under the video on YouTube.

Until next time!

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