As every English learner, I come across many near-synonyms and synonyms, such as 'sad,' 'gloomy,' and 'wretched'. How can I determine which of them conveys a stronger emotional intensity? What words are moderate in use for formal meetings, and which ones are too strong? What words sound more literary and what words are typical of everyday speech? Is there a dictionary, thesaurus, or another resource I can consult to assist me in this endeavour?

The only thing I've met is two labels in Collins dictionary for words: informal / formal and approval /disapproval.

  • You should learn English from books, conversations, etc. Dictionaries primarily exist to help native speakers check the meaning of specific terms, not to teach non-Anglophones how to differentiate between terms with similar meanings. Jun 13, 2023 at 15:09
  • I lost in ideas what can help here, it is why I mentioned dictionary, maybe some peculiar version of it? Like there is Dictionary of English Usage. Jun 13, 2023 at 15:15
  • @FumbleFingers conversations - it is true, but don't believe it is valid suggestion, cause it can be answer to any question on this website :) I ask for some resource for it, because it may exist : there are plenty of websites "difference between words consent and assent" but no structured, one resource as I see Jun 13, 2023 at 15:17
  • 2
    After being on this website for over 10 years, I have the impression most "English usage guidance" resources are written by non-native speakers, and not to be trusted. Read books written by native speakers for native speakers. Or as of the last few months, study how LLMs like chatgpt phrase things. You can't necessarily trust the truth value of anything chatgpt says, but the way it expresses itself (syntax and vocabulary) is nearly always as good as practically any native Anglophone. Jun 13, 2023 at 15:29

3 Answers 3


Native and near-native level English speakers are the best resource for questions like that, so ELL is the right place to ask. We have plenty of questions about the nuances between very similar words, beyond the bare definitions dictionaries give. So search for the words you're looking to differentiate, and if nothing pops up, then ask.

The only other ways I can think of involve finding as many real-life examples of the words as you can, and see if you can find patterns of difference between their contexts. This could involve searching Google Books or Youglish, but it will take a lot of time, and success isn't assured.


You may find the Cassell Thesaurus helpful. Its entries consist of key words followed by a number of synonyms and a paragraph of explanatory text differentiating the usage of each of them.

For example, sad is followed by the synonyms blue, dejected, depressed, despondent, disconsolate, lugubrious, melancholy.

The sad entry starts:

These words are all used of unhappy or despairing states of mind and, in some cases, of situations which cause or are evocative of such feelings, Sad, the mildest and most general term, is also the least explicit, as it gives no hint as to how downcast a person may be or for what reason...

This introduction is followed by several examples of when one may feel sad.

The paragraph on blue starts:

Blue is a loose and informal term for sad, depressed or despondent. It does not suggest the extent or depth of such a feeling except in context...

The section on sad concludes with a reference to related entries in the thesaurus, such as miserable and several antonyms, most of which also have their own entries.



As a general rule, the more common the word, the likelier it is to be used in everyday speech, including meetings. My gut instinct as a native English speaker is that "sad" is by far the more common word, and therefore much more likely to be heard.

An interesting resource for checking how common words are in the Google Ngram Viewer, which shows that sad is five times more likely to be used than either of the other two.

As for which of them conveys a stronger emotional intensity, I would say that the non-common words are likely to be emotionally stronger, by virtue of them not being the common choice. Gloomy or wretched both convey an extra meaning on top of sad, perhaps gloomy = sad + pessimistic and wretched = sad + hopeless, but there can be many other interpretations.

Sometimes the choice may be stylistic, made for rhyming or alliterative reasons, or to avoid repetition, in which case the differences in meaning may be overlooked.

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