Using Synonyms, Antonyms & Analogies to Improve Understanding

Instructor: Christine Serva

Christine has an M.A. in American Studies. She is an instructional designer, educator, and writer with a particular interest in the social sciences and American studies.

In this lesson, you'll explore your three best friends when it comes to understanding difficult words: antonyms, synonyms, and analogies. Then, test your knowledge of these three buddies with a quiz.

Unfamiliar Words

You're deeply engrossed in a novel about a group of travelling circus performers and their adventures. Unfortunately, you run into a paragraph where the author suddenly uses a lot of words that you don't quite understand. How can you figure out what they mean without taking the time to look them up?

This lesson will help you better use synonyms, antonyms and analogies to determine the meaning of the words you don't understand.

Understanding Words in Context

Here's what the paragraph in the novel says: (Hint: Don't worry that you may not know all of the italicized words!)

  • Janice was the first performer to try the new trapeze. The fact that this trapeze was in mint condition was very exciting. All of their other trapeze equipment was superannuated. In fact, some of the performers joked that the trapeze was just like the 30-year old bus the performers rode in from show to show. Both the bus and the previously-used trapeze equipment were practically antediluvian. As Janice took a leap to start practicing her act on the new trapeze, she felt herself become volant, like a baby bird leaping from a tree. By contrast, when using the old equipment, she would usually feel wingless. What a difference!

Did you feel stuck on some of the italicized words? Let's take a look at what can help you to understand this paragraph better.

Synonyms

Synonyms can be your best friends when it comes to reading a passage such as this. A synonym is a word that has the same, or similar, meaning compared to another word. For instance, a synonym for the word ''glad'' is ''happy''. A synonym for ''afraid'' is ''frightened'', and so on.

It can help to remember the word ''synonym'' by thinking about how the word starts with the same letter as ''similar'' and ''same''.

How do synonyms help? Well, in this passage, the first word you might struggle with if you hadn't heard it before is the word ''mint''. How do you know what ''mint'' condition is? It can help to re-read nearby sentences, just before or after the trapeze is described as ''in mint condition''.

The first sentence in the paragraph states that trapeze is ''new''. Both ''new'' and ''mint'' are describing the same condition of the trapeze. A-ha! They are probably synonyms. So now you know that it's likely that ''new'' and ''mint'' mean something very similar.

Antonyms

Antonyms are also your buddies when it comes to deciphering the meaning of words nearby. An antonym is a word that has the opposite meaning compared to another word. An antonym of ''happy'' could be ''sad'' and an antonym of ''frightened'' could be ''relaxed''.

It can help to remember the word ''antonym'' by thinking about how the word starts similarly to ''anti-''. When you are''anti-''-something, you are ''opposed'' to it. This may help you recall that ''antonyms'' are opposites.

When Janice is described as being ''volant'', you may have wondered what in the world that means. So let's notice that later in the paragraph, we have the following sentence: ''By contrast, when using the old equipment, she would usually feel wingless.''

If a feeling of being ''wingless'' is in contrast to feeling ''volant'', it is likely an antonym. So, even if we aren't sure of the precise meaning of the word ''volant'', by looking at its antonym (''wingless''), we can bet that it has something to do with a feeling of having wings rather than not having them.

How about the other tough words in this paragraph, like ''superannuated' and ''antediluvian''? Here again, you can look for nearby words, synonyms, that may be referencing the same qualities, or references to the opposite, the antonyms.

Yet there's another way you can use the context of the paragraph to determine the meaning of these unfamiliar words: analogies.

Analogies

An analogy is a comparison between the characteristics of two things. For example: ''She's so happy. She's like a kid eating a whole birthday cake herself.'' (comparing her happiness to the feelings of a kid eating a whole cake) or ''He looks so sad. It's like he lost his best friend.'' (comparing his sadness to losing a best friend). Even if I didn't know the meaning of the words ''happy'' or ''sad'' in these examples, I can use the analogies to figure out their likely meaning.

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