Sins and Synonymity (Writing for English Language Learners, Technique #2)

119px-Washington_Quarter_Silver_1944S_ObverseWhen I was in high school, preparing for the AP English test, students and teachers often referred to “twenty-five-cent words.” Twenty-five-cent words were long words that made us sound smart. They were to be used in our AP English exam essays, the more the better. We studied clusters of related words and the nuanced differences among them, and it was a point of pride to be able to reel off lists of polysyllabic synonyms or near-synonyms. It was taken as a given that if one could use more than one of these words in the same essay, one should.

As writers of interpretive text for a general audience, we probably realize how silly this is. But we may not realize that the idea of using synonyms for their own sake has been ingrained in many of us since the early elementary grades. Many of our teachers told us, “Don’t always write, ‘he said,’ or ‘she said.’ Use whispered, murmured, exclaimed, stated, told, ordered, inquired, queried, requested, yelled, shouted…”

But when writing for general museum audiences, we are served very poorly by a writing habit ingrained in us (quick—give me a synonym for ingrained; I just used it in consecutive paragraphs) for the purpose of either expanding our vocabulary or demonstrating our intelligence to standardized test graders.

This is especially true when we are writing for English language learners (ELLs), which brings me to the second technique for improving the readability of our text for ELL visitors. (See this earlier post for the first technique.)

Technique #2: Avoid unnecessary use of synonyms.

This technique comes from research on accommodations for ELLs in large-scale assessments (i.e. how to make standardized tests fair for students with limited English proficiency).

You may not be a big fan of standardized tests; many people who work in informal education aren’t. The thing is, there’s not a lot of money floating around to fund studies of how tweaking a few words will affect comprehension of museum labels. But it turns out that there is (relatively) quite a bit of money floating around to fund studies of how tweaking just a few words will affect students’ comprehension of passages and questions on standardized tests. And a lot of what they’ve learned from these studies, about what is usually called linguistic modification, is applicable to writing in other settings—including museums.

Here’s how researcher Jamal Abedi sums up what they’ve learned about synonyms:

It is considered a feature of good writing to not use the same words over and over again. But a test writer’s effort to infuse lexical variety into test items may result in confusion for English language learners. Synonyms like table, chart, and matrix should not describe the same thing on the same page. [1]

Research has demonstrated that applying linguistic modification principles can make text more understandable to ELLs. In general, non-ELL students’ scores are unaffected by the linguistic modifications, but ELL student scores improve.

So how is this relevant to museums? Let’s look at the start of this label from an exhibition of maritime flags:

Ships and coastal installations (both governmental and private) require flags that can be identified from great distances. Recognition was achieved during the nineteenth century by providing these vessels and facilities with flags that were especially large. Exhibited here are several American flags related to such vessels or facilities from the period 1818 to 1893.

Even some lifelong readers of English might need to reread the first two sentences before realizing that the “vessels and facilities” are the same as the “ships and coastal installations.” (If you, dear reader, have another interpretation, please let me know ASAP so I can add to or correct this post.) An ELL can find it even more difficult to recognize that this pair of synonyms refers to the same things.

See this post for my rewrite of the label quoted above. (In addition to eliminating unnecessary use of synonyms, I’ve tried to minimize use of phrasal verbs and to improve clarity, conciseness, cohesion, and coherence. I promise future posts on those “four Cs.”)

It’s hard to get out of the habit of using synonyms unnecessarily. Many of us have been hearing since third grade that synonyms make your writing interesting: “If you keep writing ‘he said’ and ‘she said,’ your reader will get bored.” But I invite you to look at a copy of your favorite novel to see whether that particular rule holds true. And if that rule isn’t true, then maybe it’s safe for us to reuse other words within our labels without fear of seeming repetitious, redundant, or reiterative.

But don’t throw out your thesaurus just yet. It’s wonderful for helping you find the perfect word, which you really want to do if you are going to use the word over and over again!

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