The Synonyms Machine

In the opening post of the “Ahead of the Curve” series, I wrote about my refusal to take part in the race against AI. I am not avoiding using AI-based tools. I am not ignoring them, but I also don’t use them in a way that will make my life too easy because the obvious next step would be to delegate the things I love doing to some chatbot. 

Theoretically, Claude (my current favorite model) could have written this post on my behalf. At the very least, it could have produced a solid draft. I would have saved time, and the result could have been quite good. I am refusing to take this path: I want to be the one doing the writing. I want to struggle with developing ideas and finding the optimal flow, structure, and words that will best capture them. I am not willing to outsource any of that. 

And yet, I am using Claude as part of my workflow, which raises the question “How?” or phrased differently: “For what?” The answer is simple: to help me do things I don’t do well. One of them is using synonyms. 

I am not a native English speaker, but as you can see, I write in English. I write fluently enough, but I tend to repeat certain words instead of using synonyms. Every online dictionary can help me find synonyms for a given word. However, the typical dictionary lacks the nuances needed to choose the right one.

The synonyms of a word are not all equivalent. Not every synonym naturally fits in every context and every sentence. Each of them might capture a slightly different meaning, even if, theoretically, they are interchangeable. Choosing the right synonym requires nuance. With a standard dictionary, this means quite a lot of research. I need to open the definition of each synonym separately, read a couple of examples, and then decide which of the alternatives is appropriate in a given sentence. As costly as this method is, it might still result in suboptimal outcomes because the definition of each alternative is rarely compared to the others. 

Let’s say I want to praise someone’s abilities, so I use the word Extraordinary in my first draft. Here is its formal definition: 

1 very unusual or remarkable
• unusually great

2 [attributive] (of a meeting) specially convened

When looking for some synonyms, I found the word Outstanding, which is defined as follows:

1 exceptionally good
• clearly noticeable

2 remaining to be paid, done, or dealt with

It’s good, but not enough to understand the nuances of using each word in the proper context. In other words, it is unclear (to me, at least) which of the two alternatives (or a different one altogether) is better in the context of my sentence.

This is where Claude (and other LLMs) can help me do better without taking over the core of my work. I use Claude not only to generate a list of synonyms but also to describe the nuances of using each of them. I can then provide the sentence I am writing and ask it to propose the best alternative for the word I am struggling with. 

To find the best synonym for "extraordinary" in that sentence, let's consider the context and meaning we want to convey. The sentence praises an employee's specific skill in identifying bugs in code. We want a word that emphasizes exceptional ability without necessarily implying rarity or unusualness.

Given this context, I believe the best synonym for "extraordinary" in this sentence would be "exceptional."

So the sentence would become:

"My employee has exceptional capability to identify bugs in the code."

Here's why "exceptional" works well:

1. It clearly conveys superior ability or performance, which fits the context of praising an employee's skill.
2. It maintains a professional tone appropriate for discussing work performance.
3. It focuses on the quality of the ability rather than its unusualness.
4. "Exceptional" is commonly used in professional contexts to describe outstanding skills or performance.

Other synonyms like "remarkable," "astonishing," or "phenomenal" might be slightly too strong or imply too much surprise for a professional context. "Exceptional" strikes the right balance between emphasizing high skill and maintaining a professional tone.

Ok, so you probably don’t need this post to come up with ideas on where AI can help you in your workflow. The point is that there’s a fine line between delegating a core aspect of your work to AI and using AI as a sidekick. 

Using AI as a sidekick where you struggle gives you an edge. This kind of usage doesn’t just help you produce better work; it enables you to learn and be more capable. When writing, I do not give up any part of the core of my work that I love, even when challenging. Especially when it is challenging. 

I use AI as a tool that enables me to grow and improve both my work and myself.

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