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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.

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.

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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