Nuances in language are like tantalizing scents in the air. You may not be able to define them, but you know they’re there. Writing is not just about knowing the definition of a word or grabbing the nearest Thesaurus to complete your thought. It’s about choosing the right word, then knowing when and how to use it. The connotative definition of a word (the way it’s used or its associated meaning) is often just as important as its literal (denotative) definition. Consider the words “suppress”, “oppress”, and “repress”. Each is a synonym for the others. Yet the reader knows there is a subtle difference between the three.

How do you determine which is correct?

In simplest terms, oppress means to burden, weigh heavily on, or press upon. Repress, means to keep under control, hold back, or reduce. Suppress, refers to putting an end to, doing away with, or keeping something hidden. Although the meanings are very similar there are small distinct differences governing their proper use. Repress and suppress are often used to describe emotions, as well as actions, while oppress is used almost exclusively in a political context or when describing something that has an almost physical sensation of weight. The following sentences illustrate the proper uses.

Governments oppress people by suppressing information.

Undesirable emotions and memories are often repressed.

The damp, humid air was oppressive.

There are several ways writers can improve their knowledge. First, read. Read as much and as often as possible. Read things that are well written, study the flow of the author’s words, the way the sentences are constructed. The more you read, the more your mind will be able to absorb and analyze the way language is used. Second, listen. Watch national newscasts or reputable talk shows and listen carefully to how the hosts pronounce and use words. Third, purchase a good dictionary. Before you use a word you’re unsure of carefully read the complete definition, then ask yourself if that is what you really want to say. If not, grab the thesaurus and keep looking until the dictionary’s definition of the word you’ve chosen matches exactly what you’re trying to say.

Last, practice. Practice, practice, practice. Remember, just because two words are synonyms it doesn’t mean they’re interchangeable!