In a recent speech, Senator Ted Cruz said:

... And under no circumstances will Iran be allowed to acquire a nuclear weapon.

Would it have also been correct to use synonyms such as obtain, secure,attain, reach, gain, etc.? As an English learner, I don't see any differences. So, I often have a problem making a selection from among a group of synonyms and wonder if there is a convention that native speakers use to choose the best word over its synonyms. Given multiple options for a suitable word (i.e. synonyms), what selection process (if any) do native speakers follow to select one word in particular?

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    It's difficult to answer this. The natives have natural tendency to use proper words at proper places that non-natives (inlcuding me!) find it difficult or at least, I need to think twice to come up with a proper word. That's because not only their vocabulary is way better than ours, but they are fairly exposed to various dialects, styles and registers.
    – Maulik V
    Mar 24, 2015 at 10:39
  • There is a vote to close the question. Is this question better to be asked in the meta site, or is that not good at all? Mar 24, 2015 at 10:41
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    @JasonStack I edited your question to try to narrow the focus a bit, but it's still likely to be closed as too broad. I think part of the reason is that this can be a question about all languages, not just English, which probably makes it a good candidate for the Lingustics SE. For what it's worth, I think it's an excellent question that should inspire some great answers.
    – pyobum
    Mar 24, 2015 at 11:47
  • @JasonStack Even if it ends up migrated, I wanted to take a crack at answering it here anyway.
    – pyobum
    Mar 24, 2015 at 12:11
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    After some deliberation, I'm opting to NOT migrate. This question got over 350 views and only two close votes. It has 3 upvotes here and several upvoted answers. Also, in its current form, it stresses how to approach this problem from the learner's perspective. If the answers here are not satisfactory, I suggest asking a similar (i.e., a related but not duplicated) question on Linguistics; one that would be a better fit for that audience, perhaps delving into why the answers here don't fully address the question.
    – J.R.
    Apr 1, 2015 at 15:17

6 Answers 6


An in-depth answer to this question could probably fill a book; I'm just going to scratch the surface.

As native speakers (of any language, certainly not just English) learn their language, they form an intricate network of associations with and between all of the words they know in their language. These associations become so ingrained in the native speaker's use of his or her language that their influence largely goes unnoticed (i.e. subconscious).

These associations in the native speaker's brain represent much, much more information about a word than its basic (dictionary) definition. This extra information includes a word's connotation(s), its collocations, level of formality, idiomatic uses and expressions, its antonyms, its synonyms, and so on.

I suspect (please note that I am stating this much more as my opinion than as cold, hard fact) that this level of knowledge of a word is very difficult for second-language learners to achieve, cannot readily be acquired in a classroom environment (i.e. from "book learning"), and develops over months and years through natural immersion and experience with the language.

To address your question a little more specifically, native speakers choose a word based on their comprehensive, lifelong experience with their own language. After encountering and using a word hundreds or even thousands of times, sorting through and considering all of these countless associations and possibilities to find the right word is something our brains do so quickly as to make it seem instantaneous. (Not to say we always get it right, though.)

  • +1 Sometimes I wonder how many words we have to process, through listening and reading, as a second language learner, before we can achieve the near-native level. Maybe a million words is not even close. Mar 24, 2015 at 13:35
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    Great answer. It's important to point out, though, that while the learning process described here gives a native speaker an advantage, it isn't always foolproof or adequate. People develop the "sense" of a word from encountering examples in both use and misuse. Their understanding is often wrong. I suspect that many native speakers responding to questions on this site are occasionally surprised when they do a little preparatory research and discover they have misunderstood a word their whole life.
    – fixer1234
    Mar 1, 2017 at 22:53

Even though we call two words "synonyms", it is rare for two words to mean EXACTLY the same thing. Words have "connotations" -- subtle differences in meaning.

An example of this that I remember from 30-something years ago: When I was in high school we saw a movie about industrial robots made by a Japanese company. They had some awkward points in translating the movie to English, but the funniest was the last sentence, when the narrator sums up by saying, "And thus, through the use of industrial robots, people can achieve happiness." The class burst into laughter, because we just don't use the word "happiness" in such a context. We use the word "happiness" for more personal things, like "Having a puppy makes me happy" or "Sally, if you marry me, you will make me the happiest man in the world!" If he had said, "Through the use of industrial robots, people have more pleasant lives" or "... enjoy their lives more", it would have sounded perfectly reasonable. By the dictionary definition of "happiness", the sentence probably sounded like exactly what the translator was trying to say. But it was just subtly wrong for that context.

The tough part is that there's no simple formula for this. It's not like I can say, "Always use the shorter word in informal contexts and the longer word in formal contexts", or "Always use the word with a 'b' sound when discussing business and the 'p' sound when discussing personal things" etc. You just have to learn the precise meaning and appropriate context of each word, and then choose the one most appropriate to what you are trying to say.

As a non-native speaker, you're not alone. Native speakers often have difficulty with this, too. The ability to choose exactly the right word is what makes the difference between great poets and orators and all the rest of us. I once read a humor article that took some famous quotes and re-worded them, so that by the dictionary, they'd mean essentially the same thing, but the alternate wording totally lost the punch. I recall one of them was Patrick Henry's quote, "These are the times that try men's souls", for which the writer offered the alternative wording, "Times like this are tough on people." Just not as memorable.


The main reason OP doesn't see any difference between acquire and his list of possible alternatives is simply that he's not a competent native speaker.

Obvious "synonyms" not present in OP's list include get and have, and my guess is the average speaker in the average "pub discussion" context would use one of those. Why? - because they're far more common words, having approximately the required sense.

But of course, Senator Ted Cruz isn't an average speaker in an average context - he's a politician addressing potential voters (in US presidential elections), and very likely he believes/hopes his words will be considered at the international level. Given that context, subtle points which come into play include...

  • As a less common word, acquire naturally imparts a degree of "authority, gravitas" to the text.

  • Semantically, acquire nicely "straddles" two closely related senses here - obtain (buy from external suppliers) on the one hand, and attain (develop using internal research) on the other. Almost certainly, Cruz wants both those meanings to be understood simultaneously.

  • Possibly as a direct result of the above two points, acquire can often carry overtones of "clandestine, improper" acquisition, particularly when replacing get, have in common speech.

There will be other factors that don't immediately come to mind for me at the moment, but that's enough to illustrate my point. Which is that native speakers can (often, unconsciously) take account of a wide range of factors when choosing between alternative words. In fact, as I write this very paragraph, it occurs to me that Cruz's choice is probably influenced by the mere fact that he's heard other politicians opt for acquire in this or closely related contexts.

TL;DR: I fully expect this question to be closed as "Too Broad". There are many different factors affecting word choice. The breadth of the speaker's vocabulary, the accuracy of his assumptions about dictionary definitions and the extent to which his audience share those assumptions, for example, all make a difference. And usually a non-native learner would find it almost impossible to identify or quantify the importance of such factors merely by consulting dictionaries.


A native speaker will have a list of words that have the same or similar meanings ingrained into their thought process and speech pattern. The individual's selection of a singular word from many is a process related to one of the following:

-the relationship between the individuals/environment that the person is in

-the familiarity with the words themselves

-the habitual nature of speech

-understanding the nuances between words that may appear identical but are not

-educational level and maturity of the individual

I cannot speak for Senator Cruz, but using the above criteria, "acquire" was used instead of "get" or "gain" because they are basic words, and his position would require an advanced word selection. Politicians generally do not want to use words that have multiple meanings (media can twist words), so "reach" would not be used. The following would be adequate choices for him to use then: "obtain", "secure", "acquire" and "attain". This is where the nuance of language plays a role. "Secure" references an object already in possession, "obtain" is not a basic word but it is commonly used, and "attain" is archaic and would not be understood by everyone.

That leaves "acquire", an advanced word that is commonly known but not commonly used.

Native speakers have the luxury of understanding the above processes instantaneously. For others it comes down to practice. 

  • 3
    I'm far from convinced that politicians generally do not want to use words that have multiple meanings. In fact, per my own answer, I believe (consciously or otherwise) Cruz used acquire precisely because it carries two different possible connotations (buy on the international arms black market, and develop internally). Just as it's entirely unspecified (from the context as given) whether allowed refers to what he personally will permit (or what a US administration led by Cruz, or "The Western World" led by the US, will permit). Mar 24, 2015 at 15:48
  • @FumbleFingers Hmm, but in this context, surely no one expects Iran to buy nuclear weapons from other countries. The issue is that they are developing the technology to build nuclear weapons themselves. It is certainly true that "acquire" could apply to many means of getting hold of something, including buying it and making it yourself. But I don't think that's the issue here. Similarly, I don't think anyone, including Mr Cruz, supposes that he has the ability to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons on his own. Surely his statement would be understood to mean that, if he is ...
    – Jay
    Mar 24, 2015 at 21:01
  • ... elected president, he will use the power of the United States to prevent Iran from acquiring nuclear weapons.
    – Jay
    Mar 24, 2015 at 21:02
  • @Jay: I'd be wary of using expressions like "the truth is that [blah blah]" in contexts like this. All we the general public have to go on is effectively "hostile propaganda" from Western politicians and military spokesmen (many of whom are the same ones who assured us that Iraq had WMD even though subsequent events seem to have put the lie to that one). Whatever - my substantive point is that in general, politicians favour vague words that admit of multiple interpretations, whilst superficially seeming to be "precise". rather than the other way around. Mar 24, 2015 at 21:44
  • @FumbleFingers Hmm, the only place I used the word "truth" was to agree with what you said. In describing what Iran is doing I said "the issue is ..." Even if we theorize that the idea that Iran is developing the technology to produce nuclear weapons is a lie spread by U.S. propagandists, I don't see how that coincides with the point you were trying to make. What, it's lie that they're trying to build them on their own, and the truth is that they're trying to buy them from another country? I certainly don't believe everything the U.S. government says, but that seems a very unlikely lie. ...
    – Jay
    Mar 24, 2015 at 21:58

Acquire seems like the best word for that sentence given the context and given the alternatives listed. Other answers have expressed the same better than I am going to here, but it seems to me a matter of word patterns, lifelong usage, connotations, and more or less conscious selections. Probably in spoken speech the words we choose are more automatic then in written communication, at least when we take the time to mull over the choices. Certainly a thing about English is that it overs a multitude of words to choose from. English learners may initially consider this a drawback or hurdle. Speakers of other languages who are learning English have been constantly telling me that English has so (as in too) many words for the same situation. Perhaps, but still in many many cases, there's only one or two that really fits the need at hand. Thus acquire in the sentence. It means get but is more formal.


No need to over-complicate the facts: there is no selection process English speakers go through to choose words! People just adapt to what sounds most natural according to the surrounding peoples' language.

As a non-native speaker, it's very impressive to have a half-decent knowledge of grammar while speaking, let alone choosing the 'most suitable' word from a pool of words that essentially mean the same thing! Every word describing different subjects come with completely different pools of synonyms, so there is no way to define any selection process at all. Different natives will even argue as to what sounds better in any given scenario.

Certainly, choosing which word to use is not the main priority: as long as you know ANY suitable word in the first place, grammar and fluency come first.

However, if you've got to the stage where you are ready to learn to tailor your language according to context like the native English folk, then I have one noteworthy tip.

  • Read.

Choosing the 'best' words is basically the same thing as speaking naturally. And reading is the best tool anyone has to learn to speak naturally. Writing is also good, but more so if you have people who are willing to review what you write so that you can improve. In fact, doing what you are now is great: you're writing in this language by asking a question, and you're reading the responses of people who are also writing in this language. You could even consider watching movies: although the speech in movies is colloquial, real life is also colloquial, so the language content, in terms of word choice, is just as valuable.

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