<< back to the archive list

June 22nd, 2005

What you asked me to tell dictionary makers

by Barbara Wallraff

I asked you, several weeks ago, what you thought I should tell dictionary makers at their convention, which was coming up soon.

Nearly everyone who answered me was of one mind. June, of Coralville, Iowa, wrote: “I am begging you to inform the ‘eminent lexicographers’ you speak to at the Dictionary Society of North America’s convention to maintain or bring back tradition.” E. Frederick Lang, of Ann Arbor, Mich., wrote: “What should dictionaries tell me? There’s no question in my mind. I want to know what is traditionally correct, not what the fad is.” Terrie Ann Schmearer, of Copake, N.Y., wrote: “When I look up a word, I want it to be correct!”

I did as you requested, and read these and other quotes aloud at the convention. As I pointed out, I wasn’t just expressing my opinion; I was sharing information about what potential dictionary buyers want. To my surprise, a number of listeners got angry. I wanted to know why. So I kept asking people, What was that about? No single answer I heard satisfied me, but what I pieced together is this:
Most dictionary makers want to provide their customers with up-to-date words and meanings, and let the customers decide what to do with that information. They don’t feel comfortable telling people how to use English, and they don’t believe that’s their job. Not without reason.

For one thing, the major dictionaries are intended to serve everybody -- not just those of us who’d like to understand the fine points of English better but also people for whom English is a second language, Scrabble players, children, people curious about antique words they read in older literature, people interested in the newest words and so on.

For another thing, expertise in English usage doesn’t come from examining words one at a time, the way dictionary makers tend to do. It comes from reading good writers, listening to good speakers and, preferably, interacting with them -- editing their writing or having conversations with them. Dictionary makers keep track of new words, new meanings of old words, and old words and meanings that may have become obsolete. They study pronunciations and word origins, and they decide when specialized terms -- from, say, computer science or medicine or cooking -- have made their way into the mainstream language. They’re not usage experts, though, and there’s no sense asking them to pretend to be.

Where does that leave those of us who care deeply about the fine points of our language? Love my dictionaries though I do, I’d say it leaves us in need of a usage manual or two. Usage manuals give more detailed information about language problems and controversies than dictionaries ordinarily do. May I recommend a few of my favorite usage manuals? I like “Garner’s Modern American Usage,” by Bryan A. Garner; “The Careful Writer,” by Theodore M. Bernstein; “Woe Is I,” by Patricia T. O’Conner; and (forgive me!) my own “Word Court.” If you care about traditional, correct language, why not look for these books the next time you’re in a bookstore or at the library? Browse through them, and see whether one or another of them strikes your fancy. Maybe it would be good for your dictionary -- and you -- if it had a companion.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list