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Category: synonyms

Big, large and great

Can you sort out big, large and great?

Generally speaking, big describes weight or extent, large is often related to dimensions or volume and great suggests something impressive. Great is often used with abstract nouns.

BIG

Big is used more often than large. In fact, big is one of the most frequent words in the English language. Big may also sound a little less formal than large.

They have a big mansion in the countryside.

Big often means important, powerful, successful:
That’s a big decision.
He is a big tycoon in the automotive industry.

Big can also mean older or elder:
My big brother has helped me a lot.

LARGE

As mentioned above, large often refers to dimension or volume.
They have a large house with a very large garden.
I have a large collection of posters from the 1960s.

A large bird or, if you like, a big bird

Large is more common with some quantity words such as the following:
A large amount
A large number
To a large extent
On a large scale
A large percentage
A large quantity

With food and clothes we use large:
I’d like a large coffee, please.
Those shoes are too large for you.

Large, not big, is used in the combination small, medium, large.

The expression at large has two meanings, 1) free, at liberty and 2) as a whole, in general:
The prisoner is still at large.
These findings relate to society at large.

Big and large are only used with countable nouns (read here about countable and uncountable nouns).
You cannot talk about *big traffic or *large traffic (for the use of the asterisk, read at the end of this text). Instead we use heavy traffic, intense traffic or a lot of traffic.

Big and large often overlap in meaning when we talk about size.
A big house.
A large house.

It is sometimes said that big implies an element of emotion, surprise, etc., especially in fixed expressions such as the following:
Big deal!
She’s a big fan of the Rolling Stones.
He’s a big liar.

A big-headed man is not the same as a large-headed man! A big-headed man thinks he is more important or cleverer than others, while a large-headed man just has a large head.

Susan is my big sister – she is older than me.
Susan is my large sister – she is physically larger than my other siblings.

GREAT

Great implies a large size:
All creatures great and small.

Great often means distinguished, remarkable:
She is one of the greatest novelists of our time.
The performance was a great success.
I have great respect for her abilities.
He has great wisdom.
My cousin is really great at tennis.

To vary your language, you should use synonyms. In a dictionary of synonyms you will find many words to describe size or importance, such as huge, enormous, sizeable, impressive, momentous, substantial, comprehensive, extensive, immense, tremendous, prominent, distinguished, etc.

Personal, personnel and staff

The words personal and personnel are easily confused, even if they are pronounced differently. The word personal has the stress on the first syllable, while personnel has a heavy stress on the last syllable, rhyming with carousel.

PERSONAL

Something that is private, that relates to or is owned by one person is personal.

When away from work I use my personal computer.
You must keep this in your personal file.
When he was promoted, he was allowed to have a personal secretary.
Is that your personal opinion?
Don’t take it as a personal attack.

During my vacation I use my personal laptop

PERSONNEL

The people employed in an organisation form the personnel. Personnel refers to human resources. The word can be used in the singular to denote all employees as a whole or in the plural to denote a group of individual employees.

All personnel is required to strictly follow these instructions.
Four security personnel were injured when a gunman opened fire on their patrol.
Who is responsible for the personnel file?
You’d better check with Personnel (with the Human Resources Department).

Now you should be able to understand the difference between a personal issue and a personnel issue. The first refers to a matter concerning just one person; the second refers to a matter concerning all employees.

STAFF

Staff is often used synonymously with personnel. The use varies between organisations. Staff can denote people who work for a special purpose, assist a manager or work under a supervisor.

She is on the editorial staff of the journal.
You may use the car park for senior staff.
He’s in a staff meeting; you’d better send him an email.

Staff can also be a verb:

We are happy to report that we are now fully staffed.
We can staff your facility with our employees.

Dictionaries of words, synonyms and collocations – a comparison

We will examine how different types of dictionaries treat the same word.

A monolingual dictionary gives explanations in simple English:

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

You can read more about dictionaries here.

A dictionary of synonyms suggests alternative words:

Collins English Thesaurus

More about dictionaries of synonyms can be found here.

A dictionary of collocations shows how a word can be combined with other words and parts of speech:

Oxford Collocations Dictionary

Read more about dictionaries of collocations here.

Finally, a thesaurus is built on concepts and ideas and will give you lots and lots of closely and more remotely related words and expressions:

Roget’s Thesaurus

A thesaurus gives you ample opportunity to vary your text, but you need to understand nuances in meaning. Under Vb. (Verb) we find neutral phrases such as be in charge and have overall responsibility but also expressions from working life such as take the helm (of a ship), take the chair (lead a meeting) and hold the reins (of a horse). We also find more informal phrases such as wear the trousers, which implies someone who is in control and makes decisions. You would not use that expression in a serious text about the CEO of a company!

Read more about thesauri here.

Thesauri

A dictionary is a list of words and their definitions. A thesaurus (plural thesauri or thesauruses) does not give definitions of words but lists words grouped together according to their meaning.

The first modern thesaurus, published in 1852 by Peter Mark Roget, is still widely used. The book is organised according to ideas or concepts. You first look up a word in the index in the second half of the book, where you will find one or several synonyms for that word, each with a reference number. Under production, for example, in my copy of Roget’s I find the words product, production and dramaturgy. The first two words refer to section 164 and the third to 594 (having to do with drama and ballet). Here you can see a part of section 164 (the numbers before some of the words refer to further sections in the book):

You will notice the richness of expressions here. There are concrete words such as thing, designer and skyscraper and more abstract ones such as attempt, productivity and idea. When you use a thesaurus like this, you need to understand nuances in meaning.

Roget’s Thesaurus is also available online here.

Online you can also find the following:

en.oxforddictionaries.com/thesaurus
collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english-thesaurus
merriam-webster.com/thesaurus
and others.

The Longman Language Activator is in a way similar to Roget’s; it is based on concepts. However, it is called a production dictionary instead of a thesaurus – it will help writers produce their ideas. Here is a part of the entry on manager:

Often the word thesaurus is used to denote a dictionary of synonyms or any kind of dictionary.

You can see a comparison between different types of dictionaries here.

Dictionaries of synonyms

Courtesy of Missoula Public Library

A synonym is a word with the same or almost the same meaning as another word. Occur is a synonym for happen; generally and usually are synonyms and so are big, large and great. An antonym is the opposite of a synonym.

Synonyms are useful for creating variation in a text. Instead of writing nice several times, you can use pleasant, agreeable, enjoyable, delightful, charming, etc.

Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms

You must understand that there are nuances; one synonym may have a slightly different meaning than another and there may also be differences in usage. You can read more about this soon in a blog post I intend to write about large, big and great.

Before you decide to use a certain synonym you must be sure (1) that the word you choose has the meaning you intend and (2) that it is used in a correct way.

Examples of printed dictionaries of synonyms are
Collins English Thesaurus
Longman Synonym Dictionary
Oxford Dictionary of Synonyms and Antonyms

You can get them from your bookshop or, e.g., Amazon, Bokus or Adlibris.

The following resources, among others, can be found online:

thesaurus.com
synonym.com
synonyms.net
synonymy.com
synonym-finder.com
thefreedictionary.com
en.oxforddictionaries.com/thesaurus

In Microsoft Word you can right-click a word and choose Synonyms. You can also search on Google. Write synonym followed by a colon and the word you want to find alternatives to.

You can find a comparison of different types of dictionaries here.

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