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June 29th, 2005

The dictionary makers respond

by Barbara Wallraff

Can you stand one more column about dictionaries and whether they’re the right tools for all the jobs you want them to do? I sent last week’s column about dictionaries to some of my fellow speakers at the recent Dictionary Society of North America convention, inviting their comments by e-mail. They lobbed back more than 6,000 words of comments! This column is about 500 words long -- so I can’t possibly share with you even the main points my correspondents made. Here, though, are a few of the bits I found most interesting:

Sidney Landau, whose distinguished career includes having edited the Cambridge Dictionary of American English, wrote: “Readers who want dictionaries to tell them what is ‘correct’ or ‘traditional’ do not understand the nature and purpose of general dictionaries. The purpose of general dictionaries is to represent as accurately as possible how the language is actually used. The dictionary editor may have his or her own ideas and preferences in usage, but it’s not part of the task to express them in a general dictionary, because anything in a dictionary should be based on the record of actual usage collected, nowadays in vast electronic files, showing particular meanings and uses.”

Michael Adams, editor of the DSNA’s journal, “Dictionaries,” and an associate professor of linguistics, wrote: “Your notion of ‘traditional, correct language’ is a fiction. ‘Traditional’ and ‘correct’ are both notions constructed, often very sloppily, by a small group of speakers of American English.”

Joseph Pickett, editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, wrote: “Some people I know view the project of English usage largely as an exercise in class bigotry. They maintain that usage commentary is more distinguished by snobbery than intellectual rigor, that many usage prescriptions are based on fantasy rather than fact and that many usage writers violate their principles in their own works. So the whole notion of wanting to know what is right or correct is misguided, in this view.

“In the books that American Heritage publishes, I try not to imply some kind of moral value in using one form of English over another. I look at things from a rhetorical point of view: How will using this expression or that one be received by a readership expecting to engage with serious discourse? How does this expression stand in the history of fine writing?

“Most readers, though, do not want excessive subtlety but simple answers to simple questions, and they look to dictionaries to provide these answers. But because language and language norms change, and writing is an inherently messy business, there is often no simple answer, and people have to get used to that.”

This brings us back to a point I made last week: Although dictionaries are useful in many ways, the people who make them do not believe they’re in the business of explaining how to use words “correctly.” (The American Heritage Dictionary comes closest to doing this job, devoting an exceptional amount of space to usage notes.) So if you’re looking for detailed advice about controversial words and how to use them, don’t be surprised if you have to look elsewhere -- to usage manuals. Last week’s column included the names of my favorite manuals.

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

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