I recently read an article in an issue of the French magazine Science & Vie, and I was struck by the number of synonyms that the writer used for grands arbres (“large trees”). I can’t recall ever reading a similar article in English with as many alternate ways of describing the article’s subject.
The article, “Vers la fin des grands arbres,” describes how the giant species of the world’s forests—sequoia, eucalyptus, pokok gergasi, baobab—are disappearing at an alarming rate.
All plants, but large trees especially, are essential for Earth’s many ecosystems. They provide habitats for innumerable animal and insect species and take enormous amounts of CO2 from the atmosphere.
The technique of using (some might say overusing) synonyms is seen less in English than in French. It’s just one of the many differences between the writing styles of the two languages.
The French reporter who wrote the article, Lise Barnéoud, used a tactic that many French writers seem to like, even in articles about concrete subjects (trees, in this case).
Instead of repeatedly writing “large trees” or the Latin name for each tree, the writer used synonyms and metaphors. But not just two or three variations—18 different phrasings for “large trees,” to be exact. Quand même !
I wish I had the data to back up my gut feeling, but I don’t think this technique is used anywhere near as much in English. It’s just one of the many differences between French and English writing styles. Some of Barnéoud’s choices—such as rois des forêts—are unsurprising. You can easily imagine an American writer doing the same.
Other choices are poetic (or overwrought, depending upon your point of view), such as cathédrales végétales (“plant cathedrals”).
What about in your language? Can writers use synonyms and metaphors to this degree? Or does it come across as forced or overdone? Let me know in the comments below.
You can also sign up to get more articles like this one in your inbox.
“Vers la fin des grands arbres.” Science et Vie. Août 2013.
Matthew Kushinka is the founder and principal of RedLine Language Services LLC. Based in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the company helps commercial clients translate, edit, and format their written content. Have a question or comment? Send it to email@example.com or connect with RedLine on Google+, LinkedIn, Facebook, or Twitter.