Saturday, September 24, 2005

Where do you go for the last word on words?

Today, I am going to depart slightly from my usual form. What I'm about to say is germane to our discussion on language, so please bear with me a moment and read on.

The Copy Editor newsletter recently ran an article on dictionary publishers and their contributions to American language. It brought up the issue of what readers expect out of entries in a dictionary, which reaches to the core of how we make decisions on word usage and lexicography in general.

So here is a thought to ponder for writers, editors, and other students of our language: What do you expect when you reference a word in a dictionary? Are you looking for definitive decisions on words as they must be, or are you looking for suggestions on words as they may be? (Let me know what you think by using the Comments feature.)

You might be surprised to learn that dictionary publishers look for the latter when making an entry on a word. From their point of view, our language isn't static, it changes over time -- morphs if you will -- to the way people actually use it. These scholars, who often do extensive research on words, try to depict a word's usage nearest the time of the writing. Their citation actually reflects their best educated guess.

Furthermore, as in many disciplines, scholars don't always agree on word usage. So, you may find different information in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary than you do in the American Heritage Dictionary. As a word researcher for your project, you need to decide what usage will make the most sense to your readers.

Then how much should you rely on your favorite dictionary to help you find word information? Only to the extent that you trust its knowledge base, and only to the extent your word(s) are non-controversial. In the latter instance, it would be wise to have a second dictionary on hand -- today you can even use a couple of online dictionaries.

Online Dictionaries
Cambridge Dictionaries Online (currently being upgraded)
Oxford English Dictionary
Merriam-Webster Dictionary

A final note on dictionaries: Did you know that there is more than one version of "the Websters"? Yes, multiple dictionary publishers use "Websters" in their titles. Which is best? It depends on what information you want to find and which Websters provides it to you the most consistently. It also depends on how many words you may need to research and how wide the area of language it may provide.


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