The only existing classification system for synonyms was established by Academician V. V. Vinogradov, the famous Russian scholar. In his classification system there are three types of synonyms: ideographic(which he defined as words conveying the same concept but differing in shades of meaning), stylistic(differing in stylistic characteristics) and absolute(coinciding in all their shades of meaning and in all their stylistic characteristics).
However, the following aspects of his classification system are open to question. Firstly, absolute synonyms are rare in the vocabularyand, on the diachronic level, absolute synonymy is anomalous and consequently temporary: the vocabulary system invariably tends to abolish it either by rejecting one of the absolute synonyms or by developing differentiation characteristics in one or both (or all) of them. Therefore, it does not seem necessary to include absolute synonyms, which are a temporary exception, in the system of classification.
According to the criterion of interchangeability in contextsynonyms are classified into total, relativeand contextual.
Total synonyms are those members of a synonymic group which can replace each other in any given context, without the slightest alteration in denotative meaning or emotional meaning and connotations.They are very rare. Examples can be found mostly in special literature among technical terms and others (fatherland – motherland; suslik - gopher; noun — substantive; functional affix -, inflection; scarlet fever – scarlatina.
Some authors class groups like ask - beg - implore, or like - love ~ adore, gift - talent - genius, famous - celebrate - eminent as relative synonyms, as they denote different degree of the same notion or different shades of meanings and can be substituted only in some contexts.
Contextual or context-dependent synonyms are similar in meaning only under some specific distributional conditions.It may happen that the difference between the meanings of two words is contextually neutralized (buy and get would not generally be taken as synonymous, but they arc synonyms in the following examples – I'll go to the shop and buy some bread and I'll go to the shop and get some bread).
A more modem and a more effective approach to the classification of synonyms may be based on the definition describing synonyms as words differing in connotations.It seems convenient to classify connotations by which synonyms differ rather than synonyms themselves. It opens up possibilities for tracing much subtler distinctive features within their semantic structures.
I. The connotation of degree or intensitycan be traced in such groups of synonyms as to surprise - to astonish - to amaze - to astound; to satisfy - to please - to content - to gratify - to delight - to exalt; to shout — to yell — to bellow — to roar; to like — to admire — to love — to adore — to worship.
II. In the group of synonyms to stare - to glare - to gaze - to glance - to peep - to peer, all the synonyms except to glance denote a lasting act of looking at somebody or something, whereas to glance describes a brief, passing look. These synonyms may be said have a connotation of durationin their semantic structure. Other examples are: to flash (brief) - to blaze (lasting); to shudder (brief) - to shiver.
III. The synonyms to stare - to glare - to gaze are differentiated from the other words of the group by emotive connotations,and from each other by the nature of the emotion they imply. Here one should be warned against confusing words with emotive connotations and words with emotive denotative meanings (e. g. to love - to admire - to adore - to worship; angry -furious — enraged; fear - terror — horror).
IV. The evaluative connotationconveysthe speaker's attitude towards the referent, labeling it as good or bad. So in the group well-known -famous - notorious - celebrated, me adjective notorious bears a negative evaluative connotation and celebrated a positive one. Cf: a notorious murderer, robber, swindler, coward, lady-killer, flirt, but a celebrated scholar, artist, singer, man-of-letters.
V. The causative connotationcan be illustrated by the examples to sparkle and to glitter: one's eyes sparkle with positive emotions and glitter with negative emotions. The causative connotation is also typical of the verbs to shiver and to shudder, in whose semantic structures the cause of the act or process of trembling is encoded: to shiver with cold, from a chill, because of the frost; to shudder with fear, horror, etc. (also to blush from modesty, shame or embarrassment) and to redden (from anger or indignation)
VI. The connotation of mannercan be singled out in some groups of verbal synonyms The verbs to stroll - to stride - to trot - to pace - to swagger - to stagger - to stumble all denote different ways and types of walking, encoding in their semantic structures the length of pace, tempo, gait and carriage, purposefulness or lack of purpose.
VII. The verbs to peep and to peer are connotations of duration and manner.But there is some other curious peculiarity in their semantic structures. One peeps at smb./smth. through a hole, crack or opening, from behind a screen, a half-closed door, a newspaper, a fan, a curtain, etc. It seems as if a whole set of scenery were built within the word's meaning. Of course, it is not quite so, because "the set of scenery" is actually built in the context, but, as with all regular contexts, it is intimately reflected in the word's semantic structure thus demonstrating the connotation of attendant circumstances.
This connotation is also characteristic of to peer: one peers at smb./smth. in darkness, through the fog, through dimmed glasses or windows, from a great distance; a shortsighted person may also peer at things. So, in the semantic structure of to peer are encoded circumstances preventing one from seeing clearly.
VIII. The synonyms pretty, handsome, beautiful are more or less interchangeable. Yet, each of them describes a special type of human beauty: beautiful is mostly associated with classical features and a perfect figure, handsome with a tall stature, a certain robustness and fine proportions, pretty with small delicate features and a fresh complexion. This connotation may be defined as the connotation of attendant features.
IX. Stylistic connotationsstand somewhat apart for two reasons. Firstly, some scholars do not regard the word's stylistic characteristic as a connotative component of its semantic structure. Secondly, stylistic connotations are subject to further classification, namely: colloquial, slang, dialect, learned, poetic, terminological, archaic,cf. (Meal).Snack, bite (coll.), snap (dial), repast, refreshment, feast (formal). These synonyms, besides stylistic connotations, have connotations of attendant features: snack, bite, snap all denote a frugal meal taken in a hurry; refreshment is also a light meal; feast is a rich or abundant meal.
Or (to leave). To be off, to clear out (coll.), to beat it, to hoof it, to take the air (si,), to depart, to retire, to withdraw (formal).
According to whether the difference is in denotational or connotational component synonyms are classified into ideographicand stylistic.
Ideographic synonyms denote different shades of meaning or different degrees of a given quality.They are nearly identical in one or more denotational meanings and interchangeable at least in some contexts, e.g. beautiful - fine- handsome - pretty. Beautiful conveys, for instance, the strongest meaning; it marks the possession of that quality in its fullest extent, while the other terms denote the possession of it in part only. Fineness, handsomeness and prettiness are to beauty as parts to a whole (also compare constituents of the synonymic group choose, select, opt, elect, pick).
Pictorial language often uses poetic words, archaisms as stylistic alternativesof neutral words (e.g. bliss for happiness, steed for horse, quit for leave).
In many cases a stylistic synonym has an element of elevation in its meaning (e.g. face - visage, girl — maiden).
Along with elevation of meaning there is the reverse process of degradation(e.g. to begin-to fire away, to eat — to devour, to steal ~ to pinch, face — muzzle).