LINGUIST List 12.1194

Mon Apr 30 2001

Review: Moss & Motta, Using Italian Synonyms

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  1. decesare, Moss and Motta "Using Italian synonyms"

Message 1: Moss and Motta "Using Italian synonyms"

Date: Mon, 30 Apr 2001 10:08:11 -0400
From: decesare <>
Subject: Moss and Motta "Using Italian synonyms"

Moss, Howard, and Motta, Vanna (2000) Using Italian Synonyms, Cambridge
University Press, 724 pp., $29.95, ISBN: 0 521 47573 2 (paperback), $85,
ISBN: 0 521 47506 6 (hardback).

Reviewed by Anna-Maria De Cesare, Duke University

Purpose of the book

The aim of this book is to provide the "English-speaking acquirer of
Italian" (p. 3) with a tool that does not already exist. The authors point
out that although there are a good number of general bilingual dictionaries
as well as synonym dictionaries today, no one deals with the specific needs
of the English-speaking acquirer of Italian. The synonym dictionaries
currently available are said to be written primarily for Italian native
speakers "seeking help in their own language" (p. 3). This book, by
contrast, has four specific features, centered on the English native
speaker: 1) to give the closest English equivalents of the Italian lexical
items, 2) to provide additional notes of guidance in English, 3) to
indicate the speech register to which each synonym can be said to belong
and 4) to permit easy access to terminology.
Having worked with foreign language acquirers, Moss and Motta observed the
lack of interest in using both dictionaries and general reference books.
Books of this kind, they say, are nonetheless very important in the
acquisition of a language. They provide a unique means of improvement at
whatever level of the acquirer. Most importantly, they can be more detailed
than other general reference books and thus present nuances that have no
space in a general reference tool. The interest of the book "Using Italian
synonyms" lies therefore in the fact that it "should [...] enable users to
increase their word power, their depth of knowledge of Italian and,
consequently, their sense of security in using the language for both spoken
and written purposes" (p. 3). The book, we should note, has been designed
to serve the purpose of improving the knowledge of both spoken and written


"Using Italian synonyms" consists of a brief introduction (pp. 1-11), the
goal of which is to explain the organization of the entries of the book and
the way it should be used. The introduction is followed by the main body of
the book, the part called Italian synonyms (pp. 13-569). The book ends with
two indexes: the index of Italian items with frame titles (pp. 570-643) and
the index of English items with frame titles (pp. 644-724).

The first pages (pp. 1-11) are very interesting from both a theoretical and
a practical point of view. They give a brief account of seven different
points: 1) terminology (why do the authors choose to use the term "lexical
items" rather than "words"), 2) synonyms (what is the definition of
"synonym"?), 3) what is a book of synonyms? (what can a book of synonyms
offer the acquirer), 4) Why a dictionary of Italian synonyms? (because no
such book is devised explicitly for English-speaking acquirer of Italian),
5) Design of volume and criteria for inclusion (the book consists of some
1000 entries, each one containing between two and more than 20 synonyms).
6) Usefulness of "Using Italian Synonyms" (described in four additional
points) and, finally, 7) The historical development of Italian and its
vocabulary (this part provides the reader with a very rough diachronical
sketch of the Italian language and explains the phenomenon called
"duplication of vocabulary").

As stated before, the main body of the text consists of the entries (also
called "semantic frames", because the meaning is of central importance).
They are organized in three columns, as follows: in the upper left part,
one finds the Italian lexical item, here called "frame title" (the point of
reference), with its nearest English equivalent(s) in the opposite upper
right. The other rows consist of "head-words", the synonyms of the frame
title, and different kinds of information: in the first column, below the
head-words, we find the register (1, 2, 3 or combined, for instance 3-2);
in the second column, we can find some grammatical information (mood of the
verb to be used, auxiliary to be used when not self-evident, possibility of
a transitive usage of the verb), some syntactic cues (position of the
lexical item), English equivalents and cross-referencing to other frame
titles (as below); in the third column, below the English equivalent(s) of
the frame title, one finds some Italian examples. Here, for example, is
part of the semantic frame given for the verb "descrivere" (p. 137):

descrivere							to describe

delineare		"to outline", "to portray"	l'esperto ha 3								delineato
			i vari aspetti
			(see also "dipingere")		della situazione
3-2				....

Each frame title (here "descrivere") has been selected according to three
criteria (p. 5): 1) it should be a general term that can be used in a wide
range of contexts, 2) a neutral term, that is, must be part of register
type number 2 ("arrabbiarsi" instead of "adirarsi", too formal, or
"incavolarsi", too informal), 3) a central term with the synonyms which
relate to it, radiating out in different directions. The authors notify
that they did not include words without an obvious synonym (giving as
example "cenere" - ash - , "ovale" - oval - and "piovere" - to rain).

It should also be noted that lexical items that belong to different word
classes are separated into different entries, labeled a, b etc. (an example
is "molto" a. as an adjective/pronoun b. as an adverb).


This book is a very useful resource both for the English acquirer of
Italian and the Italian teacher. The goal of providing clear and quick
information is perfectly met. For instance, the book uses only four
abbreviations: f: feminine, m: masculine, pl: plural and R: regional.
Furthermore, the layout used for the characters and the pages are very
pleasant. The entries are spacious and easy to look at because they are not
crowded with small words. Finally, the access of the book is made easier
thanks to the two final indexes. They allow one to find a word very quickly.

The book, "Using Italian synonyms", differs from the traditional synonym
dictionaries in various ways. One of the main differences is certainly the
presence of some kind of metalinguistic information (that is, additional
information about how to use a lexical item). Secondly, it is the presence
of a wide array of lexical items. Not only does it includes the "main"
parts of speech - nouns, verbs and adjectives - but it also include the
"minor" parts of speech. It includes conjunctions ("infatti", "perch�",
"comunque") and adverbs ("molto" with 13 synonyms, "anche" with 12
synonyms!, but "anche" is not always "persino"). We even find an
interjection ("mamma mia"). Finally, this book differs from the other
synonym dictionaries with respect to its more pragmatically oriented
approach. Not only is the book commited to providing information about the
written language, but it is also about the spoken language. Consequently,
it provides information about how to use words in various contexts, by
providing the register level information given for each lexical item. These
levels are numbered from 3 to 1: 3: formal, 2: neutral, 1: informal and
colloquial, 1*: vulgar.

The register information provided for each lexical item is certainly one of
the most valuable aspects of the book. I can easily imagine the yougest
acquirers of Italian eagerly looking for all the words marked out with
number 1 (colloquial) or even number 1* (vulgar or indecent). On the other
hand, it is not hard to imagine the same persons looking for the best word
to use in a written essay, which are the words marked with number 3 (the
most formal level). And, finally, they would be able to use the words
marked with number 2 (neutral), for instance, for classroom interaction.

Also very valuable are the notes that provide additional guidance of the
use of a lexical item. For instance, I find very useful the specification
of certain prepositions after the verb ("consistere in/di"), even if the
reader does not exactly know what the difference is and if he sometimes
must extract the preposition information from the body of the Italian
examples (one can retrieve for instance that with the verb "andare" the
preposition "a" must be used. However, the authors neglect the cases where
Italian uses the preposition "in" like in "andare in pensione", "andare in
macchina" etc. Of course, they are hard to classify within the same
semantic frame as they are not synonyms of the frame title).

The English acquirer primarily interested in spoken Italian, will be a bit
disapointed. With the exception of the items labeled as colloquial and an
entry reserved to the interjection "mamma mia" (with its 20 synonyms),
there is little about the typical words of the spoken Italian discourse. I
am thinking here for instance about the different forms of greeting (from
the informal "ciao", to the more formal "salve" and "buongiorno" or
"buond�"). I am also thinking about all the words commonly used for
turn-taking, mitigating, boosting and filling, like "praticamente",
"niente", "cio�", "voglio dire", "insomma", or simply the forms used to
conveying agreement in an answer, like "gi�", "vero", "esattamente",
"appunto", "giusto", "davvero", etc.

Furthermore, I also think that, while it is easy to classify lexical items
such as nouns, verbs and adjectives (the so-called referential words, the
words that have a lexical meaning that refers to something definite, an
action etc.) by using a scale that ranges from polite to impolite, or
formal to informal, it is much more difficult to provide the same account
for all the words that are nowadays considered and labeled "functional
words". These words do not have a lexical or referential meaning, but
rather a relational one. It then seems much more difficult to state which
word must be used where and when, given that what matters more in these
cases is syntax. The book provides the user with some information about
syntax (such as in the entry "perch�": not usually at the beginning of the
sentence"; "siccome": at the beginning of the sentence; "poich�": not
usually at the beginning of the sentence; etc.), but one finds it to be too
general, as it does not account for all the possibilities ("anche", for
instance, is used after a simple verb form). However, even if not as
complete as one would wish, it is a real challenge to provide an
explanation of these words and the authors mere attempt to do so should be
highly praised.

The inclusion of function words also leeds to an oversemplification. For
instance, I would not say that "affatto" and "mica" are synonyms of "non".
While "non" is obligatory in Italian, the first two are not, as they are
typically used to reinforce the negation. Therefore, they cannot be used
alone instead of non in standard Italian (however, we can find sentences
like "mi piace affatto" for "mi piace del tutto/completamente" and, in the
northern part of the country, "mi piace mica" for "non mi piace mica").

It should also be noted that the authors make a brief observation of
sociolinguistic interest concerning the number of synonyms available in a
particular semantic area. They offer the rule that the greater the synonyms
for a word the greater the the interest of a culture for that concept. See
for instance the entry for the color "blue", with its three possibilities
in Italian, the entry for the concept of "prostitute" (with 17 synonyms in
Italian as opposed to 10 in English) and the one for "pregnant" (with 6
different items in Italian as opposed to four in English). Despite the
surprise and interest of these cases, this rule does not avoid broad

Finally, one is suprised by the almost total absence of bibliographical
references, although the authors claim to have written this book partly by
consulting other synonym dictionaries and general monolingual dictionaries.
The only exception is a dictionary from 1830 from N. Tommaseo (this title
is just mentioned in the body of the text).

Overall, I recommend this book to anyone interested in learning and
improving his or her Italian skills. It is clearly presented, very easy to
use and sometimes also humorous.

Reviewer : My name is Anna-Maria De Cesare. I am a Ph.D student in Italian
linguistics at the University of Geneva, Switzerland and I am currently a
"visiting instructor of Italian" at Duke University, North Carolina. My
academic interests include lexical semantics (especially the adverbials),
informational structure of the sentence, sentence processing, (lexical)
diachronical changes and syntax. My dissertation deals with two
semantico-pragmatic concepts: "intensification" and "focalisation".
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