There are some works that have a certain kind of voice, which is due to their rhythm. But is this due only to word order and like things, or do their authors actually choose synonyms to achieve rhythm?

When I read certain things, I find it hard to see how a more common or obvious word could be chosen, yet I hear a certain kind of rhythm. So is this feeling that the most common word was chosen a failure of the imagination? Did the author in fact use a word different than what might have originally occurred to him?

Some people might say that using synonyms is bad because it detracts from clarity, many people not knowing the meaning of the words.

Please know that I am not talking about the metrical rhythm of verse, but the more flexible, albeit poetic rhythm of prose, based on the patterns of stress and non-stress, and perhaps their grouping into certain types of units.

4 Answers 4


Authors often look to synonym dictionaries to find words different than what first occurs to them, but this is generally NOT to achieve rhythm, but to find a more accurate or evocative word for what they really mean.

The reason is that synonyms do not mean the same thing. They are only close, each one has different overtones.

For example, Virtuous, Moral, Pure, Righteous, Good and Ethical are considered synonyms. But "Moral" and "Righteous" have religious overtones, "Ethical" has a logical overtone, a "Pure woman" does not seem the same as a "Good woman." A "pure" woman tends to mean virginal or chaste, a "good" woman can be neither, but we'd expect her to be faithful, honest, and hard working.

"Good" is used in circumstances where "Virtuous" would not be, we don't say "Virtuous dog." Even more nuanced, I can imagine real differences between a "good heart" and a "virtuous heart." "Virtuous" in its definition requires "high moral standards," while a "good heart" is not about morals, per se, and more about being kind or helpful for its own sake, not because rules demand it.

BECAUSE synonyms do not always mean the same thing, the answer is generally no, it is seldom acceptable to use synonyms to achieve rhythm, because the most rhythmic will seldom be the most accurate word to use. Failing to convey the meaning as accurately as possible is, IMO, bad writing.


As someone who worries a lot about rhythm in my own writing, I would say that rhythm is more often achieved by changing word order than by by changing words. Prose rhythm does not depend on exact scansion anyway, so choosing a word with a different stress pattern doesn't do that much for you. Prose rhythm allows for unlimited unstressed syllables. The effect of rhythm is achieved far more by making the key words fall in the stressed positions of a sentence.

In the preceding sentence, for example, I positions the key phrases "effect of rhythm" and "stressed position" at two ends of the sentence. I also use the words "far more" in the middle of the sentence to slow the reader by a suggestion of contrast, thus creating a kind of see saw that further emphasises the key phrases at either end. This is a very common rhetorical device in prose.


There are many reasons that a good writer may choose a particular word. As Amadeus notes, synonyms normally do not all mean EXACTLY the same thing: there are shades of meaning. But, no offense to Amadeus, but I think he oversimplifies when he says that the exact meaning is the only or overriding criterion. Sometimes a writer chooses a certain word because the sound of the word fits his context better. To take a trivial example, if I was writing a book for children, I probably would not write, "It is advisable to aspire to be a virtuous youngster", but more likely, "You should try to be a good boy or girl". Even if the first is a more accurate expression of what I am trying to say, I likely want to keep the language simple for a children's book. If I was writing a love scene, I'd be more likely to write, "Bob was so overwhelmed by Sally's awesome beauty that he was unable to breathe", than "Bob thought Sally was pretty and it made him act weird." I am suddenly reminded of the medical technician who said that in his training they were drilled in proper medical terminology, so when the doctor asked him what was wrong with the young patient he had just brought in, he said, "Probable contusion of the cranium." The doctor then turned to the little boy and said, "Aww, did you bop your gourd?"

I would certainly be careful with using a synonym that has a more desirable tone or rhythm, but whose meaning doesn't quite fit. I occasionally come across some very odd choice of words, and I think about it and realize, Oh, the obvious word to use hear would have been X, but they didn't want to use that because it would have created an undesirable rhyme (or whatever), and so they used this other word that doesn't really fit. For example, I once saw a billboard advertising sun glasses that had the text, "Look ma, I'm glancing at the world through my [brand] sunglasses!" "Glancing" seemed a very odd word in the context, but what I'm sure happened was that the first draft was, "Look ma, I'm looking at the world ..." Then someone decided they shouldn't use "look" twice so close together, and came up with a goofy substitution.


I would venture to guess that most writers whose prose has a poetic quality produce that quality naturally, without conscious effort.

However nearly anything that can be produced by nature can be reproduced by craft, so I would also venture to guess that there are writers who spend a great deal of time and effort --and consider alternate word choices -- in order to produce that same poetic quality.

In the end, however, the method of production doesn't matter. Ideally a piece of prose should sound effortless and natural --even if it took days of steady effort to produce. Contrariwise, prose can easily sound forced and labored even when produced in a single burst of inspiration. So the real question is whether the final product meets expectations, not how was it created.

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