Words, thesauruses and logic

We had a great time.

          He’s a great guy.

                   Wow, that’s great!

Great is often used in speech but you sometimes need to be more specific in writing. A word can have many meanings and uses. "Great" can be related to:

— large size, large amount
— important event, place
— grand location, occasion
— famous person, thinker
— skilful person, craftsperson
— excellent person, performer
— total negative meaning as in “a great fool”, “a great calamity”

The Old English word, around 1,500 years ago, was spelt the same but pronounced something like “gree-att”. It meant coarse, thick, massive. It could also mean pregnant. That is why some women are described in the Bible as being “great with child”.

Over the centuries, its uses expanded to cover variations in size and quantity, such as above average, much, many, large, largest. Gradually, uses emerged that were to do with quality or value, implying importance, of remarkable ability, impressive, skilled, excellent. Nowadays, if you are looking for a term to use instead of great, a thesaurus might suggest words such as:

immense, spacious, monstrous, exceptional, critical, influential, heavy,
dominant, glorious, illustrious, renowned, talented, incomparable.

At this point, you have to remember that a real thesaurus is more than a dictionary of synonyms. You cannot simply choose one of those words and use it in any sentence. If you do that, you could finish up with a howler. Consider these examples:

— Sharon is really immense on the guitar.
— We had an influential time at the party.
— Your cooking is monstrous!

The message is this: You should apply reason and logic when choosing a word. Whatever you choose must fit the context of the sentence. If you pick an unsuitable word, your sentence could become nonsense. It could also have the opposite meaning to what you intended, as in “Your cooking is monstrous!” Ask yourself, “What do I really want to say?”

Oops! I think I’m going to contradict myself. You do not always have to be completely logical. You’ll find out why in the section Words, Feeling and Expression.

Go to Words, feelings and expression

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