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Choosing between Similar Words

Often, when writing an essayarticle or thesis, you will need to decide which particular word works best with your text. Sometimes this can be difficult when there are several words with the same or similar meaning; these groups of words are called ‘synonyms’. As an example, the word ‘particular’ (used in the first sentence of this blog) is a synonym for ‘specific’, ‘exact’ and ‘precise’. Your choice of word will depend upon the style, context and even the rhythm of your text.

What, though, determines your choice between words that are not only synonyms for each other but also look and sound almost exactly the same? The words ‘minimal’ and ‘minimum’ and the words ‘optimal’ and ‘optimum’ are often used interchangeably. While the two sets of words do each operate as synonyms, there is a small but significant difference between ‘minimum’ and ‘minimal’ and between ‘optimum’ and ‘optimal’ that can help you distinguish between them.

‘Optimum’ and ‘minimum’ can operate as both nouns and adjectives. That is, each of these words can be the subject of a sentence (noun) or a word that describes a noun (adjective). However, ‘optimal’ and ‘minimal’ can only operate as adjectives.

As a noun, ‘optimum’ is defined in the Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary as ‘the best or most favourable condition or amount’. ‘Optimum’s’ adjectival definition is ‘[the] best, most favourable’. As an adjective, ‘optimal’ is defined as ‘[the] best or most favourable’.

So, while you could use ‘optimum’ and ‘optimal’ interchangeably as an adjective to describe a noun—‘an optimum condition’ or ‘an optimal result’—you can only use ‘optimum’ as a noun itself. For instance, ‘an example of the optimum is the best growing condition for a plant’. (This example sentence is from

‘Minimum’ as a noun is defined as ‘the lowest or the lowest possible number, amount, intensity; as an adjective, it is ‘[something] that is a minimum’. The word ‘minimal’, also an adjective, is defined as ‘very small, the least possible’. (All definitions from the Australian Modern Oxford Dictionary.)

So we can have a ‘minimum amount’ or a ‘minimal effect’, with the words working as adjectives describing the nouns ‘amount’ and ‘effect’. ‘Minimum’ is used as a noun in the following sentence:

‘The minimum is 50 km per hour’.

Word use in English can be confusing, and often your discipline will determine the preferred word; for example, biology, which uses quantitative analysis and methodologies, commonly uses the word ‘optimum’ in specific contexts.

With a good dictionary, thesaurus and grammar guide (or a website such as this one!), you will find ample assistance in developing your writing skills and your grammatical knowledge. An educated choice of synonyms, nouns and adjectives will enliven your writing, ensuring optimal communication of your message. Even the best English writers never stop learning and extending their own knowledge.

Updated 07 October 2018

Dr Ellen McRae,

Managing Editor,

Elite Editing.

1 thought on “Choosing between Similar Words”

  1. Is it not a great shame that people in the public eye can neither speak nor spell correctly, let alone know the difference between similar words. How often does one hear radio announcers and television presenters. Even Auntie ABC has been known to fail in her public duty to the pedants in our society by not educating her on-air staff to say "aitch" instead of "Haitch". I always thought Auntie was more cultured than the average commercial station. Those writers of advertisements could do with some lessons in English as well. In particular, spelling. How I cringe when I see some of the appalling errors on my television screen. I wish I had a dollar for every example of poor written or verbal skills I have either heard or seen on the radio or television. I believe I would be retired and living the life of the idle nouveau riche in the Greek Isles if I had .Where is the education of my fellow Australians taking them?

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