Sometimes, when I look up synonyms for a word as a non-native English speaker, I can miss the subtle differences between the different options and won't know when the option is appropriate to use.

Is there a type of dictionary that explains the subtle differences between the words and provides clues on when to use them?


While I don't know of a dictionary that offers what you want, you could look up the meanings of the individual words. This may take longer, but ultimately you will learn more and probably make a more informed decision.

For the example you have:

Avoid seems to be the most "basic" word here. It has quite a few meanings and the other options are more specific.

Evade usually means to avoid by moving physically.

The man evaded capture by weaving through the back streets.

It can however, be used more figuratively.

Politicians are skilled at evading questions.

Refrain from and abstain from both mean to make a conscious effort to stop doing something. Abstain from is more absolute and to me, it seems to be related to religion and "sins".

Please refrain from smoking on this flight.

She abstained from sex until she was married.
Devout muslims abstain from alcohol.

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'Evade' contains an element of sneakiness, for me.

Tax evasion is illegal, as it is done by breaking tax laws; tax avoidance is not. (It may be unethical, but it is not illegal).

'Refrain from' means 'avoid doing, even if you really want to'. (It literally means 'hold yourself back').

'Please refrain from touching the exhibits' would be common in a tactile sculpture exhibition.

'Abstain from' contains an element of avoidance of vice or sin, and usually has religious or ascetic overtones.

Members of the Total Abstinence movement in Ireland abstained from all forms of alcohol/Mormons abstain from caffeine.

It is usually a solemn verb, and indicates the signing of a pledge, or a profoundly held religious belief. It is more often used with a noun, although it can also be used in the gerund form.

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