I've noticed that many synonyms are often not very alike. Yes, their core meaning is the same. But there are many differences in mood or tone. Often I understand the kind of meaning it will have by the sound of it.

Here's how I interpret two synonyms 'happy' and 'glad'

  • Being happy reflects a positive attitude or nature as a general overall feeling. Just feeling the wind on my skin makes me happy. Life going peacefully and smoothly makes me happy.

  • Gladness requires more of a benefit to oneself. You're usually glad because something was done. It eases your life in some way or it simply makes you feel happy. Either ways, it was beneficial and that makes you glad.

"Skinny" and "Slender"

  • Skinny has a sharp tang. It adds to the quality of being thin a certain sexiness.

  • Slender has the same basic meaning as 'skinny', but it paints a more graceful and eloquent picture of thinness. I automatically associate slenderness with a refined sense of beauty.

I have never learnt it anywhere but still whenever I see these words being used, that is how I understand them. Why is it that way?

I know all of it looks very confusing. It does to me too. To be honest, I hardly understand what my question is myself. Hopefully, somebody will be able to sort this mess out and identify what I'm asking.—

  • 2
    You might not have been formally taught the distinctions between those words, but you learn connotations through use-in-context. That said, your sense of skinny as suggesting a certain sexiness is rather subjective. To some people it might conjure up images of undernourishment, gauntness, frailty.
    – TimR
    Commented Dec 21, 2017 at 20:14
  • Agreed. Skinny was originally an unflattering word for thin--decidedly un-sexy--and still carries a negative connotation. Because so many people are trying to lose weight, this is changing, but it doesn't normally connote sexiness.
    – farnsy
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 1:20
  • Yes, nuances of language/word usage are tricky to fathom, and it's great that you have recognised and articulated these examples. Context, of course, helps Decoding meaning is mostly a learned skill, at which some are better than others. It is also subjective. By and large, English is so flexible as to be almost totally subjective. (Running and ducking for cover.)
    – Livrecache
    Commented Dec 22, 2017 at 5:08

2 Answers 2


It's an absolutely natural part of high-level language acquisition - you stop relying on your internal dictionary and memorized meanings of words and instead begin to recall the contexts in which you've heard them. Those contexts, in turn, allow you to deduce what the speaker meant, and what kind of undertone their words might have had.

For example, if someone asks you "You want to grab some lunch?", and you're a low or medium level English speaker, it's likely you'll understand the phrase in its literal meaning - someone is asking you if you're hungry. You might even recognize that the wording implies the other person wants you to go with them. That's the dictionary meaning of the phrase, and it's enough to have a surface-level understanding of the language, but you won't catch much beyond that.

As a fluent English speaker, however, you can instantly recognize the subtext - that the person asking you out is being friendly, and that it's probably more about spending time together than eating. That's not really something you can figure out by reading a dictionary - but since you've probably watched a movie or read a book where someone is asked out in this way and ends up socializing and conversing, your brain has associated the phrase with a friendly outing and can now recall that association subconsciously.

That's why, at your level, it's good to supplement your learning process with a language corpus, or even a quick Google to see the word being used in a conversation or longer text.


There would be no need for different words if a given set of synonyms didn't have different shades of meaning.

Words and their use have a history, and that history continues to be written by everyone who speaks the language. So it's hard to pin down. Obtaining the definition of the word through asking or looking up the word in a dictionary can only barely scratch the surface.

Use of a word is an expression of the speaker/writer's surroundings, historical time, influences, mood, and a bunch of other factors, in addition to what he/she wants to actually say and mean. Not sure if it's instinctive as much as intuitive - being sensitive to those extra factors.

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