Ask Language Log: When substituting synonyms fails

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From S.S-L.:

I have a 2.5-year-old daughter, so I've been paying close attention to traps for the unwary in English-language learning. One thing I'm catching are instances where it feels like x is a synonym for y, and hence that you can just regex-replace every instance of x with y, and yet that fails. A couple instances:

    1.  She has a teddy bear named Tobias. She said both "Let's clean up Tobias" and "Let's clean up him." The former is perfectly good English; the latter is definitely not. A naïve understanding of how pronouns work might lead you to believe that you could just find-and-replace proper nouns with pronouns, but it's not true.
    2.  One might naïvely think that "to allow" and "to let" are synonyms, and hence that you could sub the one for the other, but it's "I allow him to do [something]" versus "I let him do something." The former requires "to be" as a helping verb; the latter does not.

When I hear examples like this, I try to imagine programming a computer to generate valid sentences, or at least imagine putting together the minimal set of rules for a new English learner. Is there some nice compact way of representing all these sorts of exceptions to naïve synonymy? Or is it really just a long list that native English speakers have long since internalized?

An excellent question, with an interesting series of answers.

We can start with the observation that it's not a dichotomy between "a nice compact way of representing these exceptions" and "just a long list that native speakers have internalized", and the corresponding methods of "figure it out" and "look it up". Rather, it's a spectrum of more or less regular patterns, for which the term quasi-regularity is helpful. And this quasi-regularity applies at all levels of the grammar.

A second point is that this problem applies not only to children learning a language, but to second-language learners as well. When I (try to) write in French, among my biggest problems are figuring out which prepositions to use in particular cases, deciding which structures to choose for particular dependent clauses, and so on. The patterns involved are different across languages — in English it's they live in Philadelphia, not they live at Philadelphia, while in French it's ils habitent à Paris, not ils habitent en Paris. For different sorts of locations, English might prefer at (e.g. at the intersection of 37th and Spruce), and French might prefer en (e.g. en Europe, en France). But the range of choices is not entirely random — the patterns involve sets of generally locative words like in/at/on rather than prepositions like without/after/since.

And a third point is these patterns vary not only across languages, but also across different varieties of the same language, and therefore across time within a given variety.

For a few past discussions of related points, see

"The theology of phonology", 1/2/2004
"The curious case of quasi-regularity", 1/15/2004
"Who let the 'n' in?", 1/22/2006
"The evolutionary psychology of irregular morphology", 4/10/2008
"Closer, my ex, of you", 4/25/2008
"On beyond personal datives?", 11/5/2009
"A half century of usage denialism", 5/12/2012
"Ask Language Log: 'differ to'?", 6/10/2013
"x-elements", 1/10/2014
"Quasiregularity and its discontents", 9/13/2014
"Shibboleth and perejil", 7/13/2015
"Decopunk and other quasicompositional compounds", 9/2/2018



  1. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 9:12 am

    The "up Tobias" but not *"up him" puzzle is explained by I take it English phrasal verbs are often quite a puzzle for ESL learners (and maybe even L1 Anglophone toddlers, although that's not something I've specifically noticed with my kids). That the correct word order may depend on how "light" v. "heavy" a particular lexical piece of the construction is a further exotic complication, and two different options may seem synonymous semantically yet very different when it comes to this sort of metaphorical "weight."

    [(myl) A different mis-generalization: a toddler of my acquaintance referred to the remains of a local fire as the "the burned house down". ]

  2. Matt Sayler said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 10:57 am

    A little farther afield, but the example reminds me of "meet me up" and "catch me up." The first one seems very informal, and I mostly hear it in pop music. I commonly hear variations on "catch me up" in American technology business contexts.

  3. Timothy Rowe said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 11:39 am

    I can't remember which comic made the observation, but although "vision" and "sight" might seem to be synonyms, the reaction if you call your wife a vision is likely to be different from the reaction if you call her a sight.

  4. matt regan said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 12:07 pm

    Timothy Rowe: Unless she is a sight "for sore eyes".

  5. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 12:11 pm

    I believe that the root cause of S.S-L.'s problem lies in the assertion that "x is a synonym for y". x may well be a synonym for y in some context, but not in others. One can say (for example) "Let's let him stay up late" and "Let's allow him to stay up late" but not "Allow's let him <etc>" or "Allow's allow him to <etc>".

  6. Athel Cornish-Bowden said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 12:28 pm

    Prepositions are often the most difficult words to translate. Compare, for example, pour and par in French with para and por in Spanish. In your example, ils habitent à Paris is fine (and for me, j'habite à Marseille) but some cities takeen: ils habitent en Avignon. Someone at Quora says that nowadays it is à Avignon: maybe, but what people actually say is en Avignon (and en Arles likewise).

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 1:22 pm

    Matt Sayler: As far as I know, in American business English, "catch me up" means "give me the information I need to work with the people who already have it". In British English, if I'm not mistaken, "catch me up" can mean "catch up to me".

  8. Coby said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 1:32 pm

    Note that habiter was once (and still is, in the formal register) a transitive verb that doesn't require à or enj'habite Paris — and used intransitively only when some other preposition (like dans or sur came into play.

  9. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 2:50 pm

    For me (native speaker of <Br.E>), "catch me up" would be more formally rendered as "catch up with me", and not "catch up to me". It could be said, for example, to someone lagging behind on a walk.

  10. Keith said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 3:23 pm

    Coby quite rightly pointed out that "habiter" does not need any following proposition such as "à"… "J'habite Paris" is perfectly cromulent.

    The use of "en" in the context of Avignon is a bit more complicated, because it relates not strictly to the modern day city, but to the pontifical state of Avignon and because the local variety of Occitan inserts an intervovalic -n- in phrases such as "vau à-n-Avignoun" which seems to reinforce use of "en" in standard French.

  11. Kenny Easwaran said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 3:23 pm

    One changing choice of preposition I've noticed lately is that undergraduates often talk about a paper over topic X, or a lecture over topic X, where I would have to use "on" or "about". I think German uses "über" for this concept, which often corresponds to either "over" or "on".

    I can't recall whether I've yet heard a grad student use this construction. I don't think I've ever heard it from a faculty member.

  12. Dara Connolly said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 3:32 pm

    The title of the song "Take on me" by A-ha seems to be an example of a second-language speaker getting it wrong. As described in the wiki article, the rules governing word order in these sentences are almost impenetrably complex, and depend on whether a pronoun in a phrasal verb is "construed as" a pronoun or a particle.

    What rule could an ESL speaker apply to decide on pronoun placement in the following cases?

    My parents were looking after the children
    My parents were looking after them
    *My parents were looking them after

    He wanted to chat up the girl with red hair
    *He wanted to chat up her
    He wanted to chat her up

    This is the only context I can think of where substituting a noun phrase with an appropriate pronoun is ungrammatical.

  13. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:00 pm

    @Dara Connolly

    Take on the first-person narrator of this song.
    *Take the first-person narrator of this song on.
    *Take on me.
    Take me on.

    Maybe "this guy" (a la "This Guy's In Love With You") would be, considered as a third-person self-reference, a synonym for "me" and "the first-person narrator of this song" that's intermediate in weight? Both of the following sound okay:

    Take on this guy.
    Take this guy on.

  14. Andy Stow said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:03 pm

    Then there's the comparison "different from" in American English, but "different to" in British English, and each sounds quite wrong to speakers of the other.

  15. Terpomo said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:09 pm

    There's an old joke about an article spinner producing the phrase "a comb with hazard" (="a brush with danger")

  16. David Morris said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:42 pm

    When I was teaching English, barely a lesson would go by without something like this cropping up, which I'd look moderately foolish about trying to think of some explanation for on the spot. I am now not teaching English, partly because I don't like looking moderately foolish barely every lesson.

  17. Michael Warhol said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:44 pm

    And then there's (in American English) "on accident," as opposed to "by accident." The former sounds so wrong to me, but seems increasingly common. My guess is that it's a regularization based on "on purpose."

  18. Philip Taylor said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 4:51 pm

    Not convinced about your "different <preposition>", Andy. The OED (online edition) says :

    b. With from, to, than, †with, †against, etc., in constructions specifying the two or more things which differ from each other. Different from is the most common and most accepted construction, both in British and North American English.

    and this was true even when Sir Ernest Gowers revised the second edition of Fowler's Modern English Usage in 1965.

  19. peterv said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 8:30 pm

    In American English, “visit with” has a different meaning to “visit”. Indeed, a person can visit with someone without actually visiting them, for example, in conversation over the phone. In British English, both terms mean “visit”, so British people often miss the subtlety when “visit with” is used by Americans, IME.

  20. Laura Morland said,

    February 4, 2022 @ 10:48 pm

    @Michael Warhol, *on accident* is definitely a generalization from the locution *on purpose*, and is rampant among teenagers, at least in California.

    When my niece was living with us in Berkeley, I must have corrected that mistake in her speech a hundred times, to the point where she volunteered the other day (now age 20 and living in Colorado), "Aunt Laura, I haven't forgotten anything you taught me. Every time I want to say "on accident*, I stop myself."

    @Philip Taylor, the OED may prefer *different from*, but the British Man in the Street isn't paying attention. I hear "different to" in BE quite frequently. (And it always rubs my ears the wrong way.)

    Finally, as an American living half the year in France (where the local publication from our Mairie used to be entitled "J'habite le 12e" — no preposition required), I would assert that prepositions are the last stage of complete fluency. While my overall mastery of the language is at a pretty high level after 20 years, I despair of ever getting to the point where the wrong preposition doesn't pop out of my mouth… or pen.

    Going in the other direction, my mentor, Alain Renoir, who published articles in a gorgeous English, would routinely use "that" for "than" … about the only mistake I ever heard him make, and an understandable one.

  21. Chas Belov said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 2:35 am

    Then there's

    slow up
    slow down
    speed up
    *speed down

  22. Philip Taylor said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 4:59 am

    Laura, I don't think that the OED "prefers" anything; it simply reports on the status quo (as well as on the historical status, etc). So when it says "Different from is the most common and most accepted construction", it is reporting a fact, not offering guidance or expressing a preference. Yes, of course I hear "different to" — I probably use it myself — but whenever I am taking care with my writing, I remind myself that "differs from" is always used, never "differs to", and respect that same distinction with "different", despite Fowler's advice that I need not.

  23. Jonathan Smith said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 9:08 am

    walk in the door
    walk out the door
    walk in the room
    ?walk out the room
    (AAVE OK, U.S. standard only "walk out of the room")

  24. Francois Lang said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 10:46 am

    My wife was born and raised in Beijing, but her English is essentially flawless — better, in fact, than that of some of my educated colleagues.

    But English phrasal verbs sometimes trip her up semantically (albeit not syntactically). E.g., she can confuse

    knock over
    knock down
    knock up
    knock out
    knock off

    which leads to some hilarity, e.g., "Oops, I knocked up my water glass"!

  25. Alexander Browne said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 10:49 am

    @ Chas Belov

    USA/MN native, and "slow up" doesn't work for me.

  26. Robert Coren said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 11:03 am

    I remember a time many decades past when my then-teenaged brother used "different than", and my father challenged his usage, saying "Do you differ than us?" – from which as association of ideas led him to add, "Are you offer than us?" (A case could be made that, in a strict prescriptivist context, he should have said "than we", but it didn't occur to any of us at the time.)

    @Francois Lang: Then there's the fact that "knock up", in British usage, can mean (or used to, anyway) simply to get the attention of someone by knocking on their door, in parallel with "ring up". "Shall I come by and knock you up in the morning?"

  27. David Marjanović said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 11:15 am

    undergraduates often talk about a paper over topic X, or a lecture over topic X, where I would have to use "on" or "about". I think German uses "über" for this concept

    Yes; literally, über is "over" and "above", but it's also used in "about a topic".

    *Take the first-person narrator of this song on.

    In German that's the only option: "Take the first-person narrator of this song, who loves to play with center-embedding all day long, on." Here as elsewhere, English has a limited tolerance for length – but how such situations are handled in English has been heavily conventionalized in rather unpredictable ways, so that blow up is separable in one meaning but not the other…

  28. Dara Connolly said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 6:17 pm

    @David Marjanović
    blow up is separable in one meaning but not the other…

    Except that when the object is a pronoun, both meanings require "blow it up" and not *"blow up it".

  29. Terry K. said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 8:10 pm

    I'm wondering about the two (transitive) meanings of "blow up". Not being able to think of more than one when I read that, I checked a dictionary, and I come up with three. To blow something up by explosion, to blow up a balloon (fill with air), and to blow up a picture (enlarge).

  30. Terry K. said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 8:14 pm

    I should have added, and all three meanings strike me as at least somewhat allowing the direct object to go between "blow" and "up", and a Google search confirms this. What meaning allegedly doesn't allow "blow" and "up" to be separated?

  31. wanda said,

    February 5, 2022 @ 10:57 pm

    @A-ha fans: I always thought the "Take on me" line was the singer offering a take, meaning a view or assessment, on himself. In other words, he's saying that his "take" on himself is that the woman he's talking to should take him on, because he'll be gone (in a day or two, or possibly not until he comes for her). It doesn't quite work, but neither do a lot of pop song lyrics.

    @ Chas Belov: "Slow up" strikes me as informal or possibly AAVE.

    @Terpomo and Philip Taylor: I entirely agree that synonyms can't always be used interchangeably. One of my students is going to learn this too, really soon, when the Honor Code office asks him why his assignment is entirely identical to another student's assignment, except for the repeated substitution of "response" for "reaction" in the phrase "chemical reaction" and the substitution of "unsound course of action" for "unstable arrangement" of atoms.

  32. Philip Taylor said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 3:03 am

    Terry — "Blow a balloon up" ? As cast, that would seem to imply "cause a balloon to explode", whilst "Blow up a balloon" would imply "inflate a balloon". To me, at least.

  33. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 9:13 am

    It's sobering to be reminded that for all the machinations of Chomsky & Co. we are still reduced having to learn by good old-fashioned rote all the vb.+ prep. combinations (and many other things).
    I'm groaning under it with Spanish right now. School Latin and a fair competence in French don't help much.

  34. Philip Taylor said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 12:57 pm

    But then we also have to learn by "good old-fashioned rote" the correct tone for every Chinese « word » — is that not at least as difficult as learning "all the vb.+ prep. combinations" of Spanish ? I have a distinct feeling that there are significantly more of the former than of the latter …

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 1:56 pm

    @Terry K.: A sentence like "The wind blew up the street" cannot be recast as "The wind blew the street up." But that's because that's really not a use of "blow up" as a phrasal verb, just a use of "blow" with a prepositional phrase as a complement. You can separate "blow" and "up" there with an adverb like "briskly" I suppose, but not with a noun or pronoun.

  36. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 1:58 pm

    @wanda: One of my friends is a high school teacher of U.S. history and he has told me of such improbable synonym-phrases as "Big Unhappiness" for "Great Depression" and "burglar nobles" for "robber barons."

  37. Michael Watts said,

    February 6, 2022 @ 9:46 pm

    A sentence like "The wind blew up the street" cannot be recast as "The wind blew the street up." But that's because that's really not a use of "blow up" as a phrasal verb, just a use of "blow" with a prepositional phrase as a complement.

    Yes…? But as you note right there, that's not an example of "blow up" and doesn't say anything about how "blow up" can be used.

    You can separate "blow" and "up" there with an adverb like "briskly" I suppose, but not with a noun or pronoun.

    What? You can place an adverb after the verb, yes. It's also easy to place nouns after verbs; what was supposed to be wrong with "the wind blew the newspaper up the street"?

  38. Peter Grubtal said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 5:23 am

    Philip Taylor

    Yes, of course, learning any language as an adult, especially one like Chinese, is a challenge to one's powers of retention, unless you are very gifted. But I was referring to the grammatical aspect, where one might have expected? hoped? that the generatives and proponents of universal grammar would have shed some light, or recognised system in these apparent irregularities. But, as their critics point out, context and semantics lead to frequently unpredictable syntax.

  39. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 5:51 am

    Fair enough, Peter, but I think that at least in the case of Athel Cornish-Bowden's example, the "rule", if not explicit, at least appears rational : if the speaker feels that he must use a preposition after "habite[nt]", then the preposition is «à» if the city/town/whatever begins with a consonant, and is «en» if it begins with a vowel, purely for reasons of euphony.

  40. Robert Coren said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 11:00 am

    @J.W.Brewer: Your synonym examples remind me of an Icelandic film I saw (during a cruise around Iceland) a couple of years ago, whose subtitles had clearly been done by someone who didn't really speak English. One notable example: I was puzzled by references to the "outbreak" on the island of Heimaey until I realized that this was a literal translation of whatever the Icelandic word is for "eruption" (which of course is derived from a Latin word meaning "outbreak").

  41. Michael Warhol said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 2:21 pm

    Speaking of burning (as someone was), why are some things said to "burn up" and others to "burn down"?

    You might hear "The house burned down a year ago" but not "The house burned up…" (Though "burning up the house" might be used figuratively in a conversation about, say, a musical performance, but "burning down the house" in the same context might also be heard.)

    Or "The car burned up after the accident" but not "The car burned down…"

    Could be a size thing, but there must be a delineation somewhere. Does a doghouse burn down or up?

  42. Chas Belov said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 5:11 pm

    @Alexander Browne: Interesting.

    US/Western PA

    Searching, I see an IMBD quote from Battlestar Galactica using "slow up" the same way I use it.

    Not disputing that it doesn't work for you (or asserting that the quote is accurate, since I haven't watched BG in years and years).

  43. Philip Taylor said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 5:20 pm

    In British English, I know of "burn[ed] up" only in a metaphorical sense. For literal usage, it would be "burnt down" or "burnt out". Afterthought: interesting that I instinctively used "burnt" where Michael W uses "burned".

  44. Terry K. said,

    February 7, 2022 @ 7:41 pm

    I would think of "burned down" as applying to something that would fall to the ground as it burned, like a house would. Whereas "burned up" gives me an image of something being consumed by fire.

  45. Robert Coren said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 10:41 am

    There's an exchange in Mary Renault's The Persian Boy (a historical novel about Alexander the Great) in which Bagoas (the narrator) asks Alexander why he and his men burned down the palace at Persepolis, and Alexander replies, "Up. We burned it up" – referring, it seems, to the direction of the flames.

  46. Philip Taylor said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 1:07 pm

    I don't suppose that he then went to say "and we razed it to the heavens", did he ?

  47. Philip Anderson said,

    February 8, 2022 @ 4:24 pm

    Like Philip Taylor, I would say a car was burnt out, although I would probably say it caught fire after an accident. Burning up implies something is completely consumed, like paper, but not a house or a car.

    I would normally say burnt too, and keep burned for something continuous: Nero fiddled while Rome burned.

  48. Robert Coren said,

    February 9, 2022 @ 10:55 am

    @Philip Taylor: No, he did not.

  49. Andrew Usher said,

    February 11, 2022 @ 11:08 pm

    Note the passive in 'was burnt out', making it not really parallel to 'burned up' and 'burned down'. It's a fire that burns out (transitive or not) – the figurative sense is comparing the named object to a fire, not to something that gets burned, I would say.

    k_over_hbarc at

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