A Storytelling Serial
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I don’t think I’m the only one who grew up hearing, “It’s in the dictionary, so it must be right.”
The problem is, the dictionary can offer more than one spelling of a word. How do we make the right choice?
The bigger issue, though, is that the brilliant lexicographers who write dictionaries don’t do it to tell the English-speaking world what’s right. They ply their skills to tell the English-speaking world what words are being spoken and written.
In other words, dictionaries describe the ways we use language. They don’t make value judgments and decree which words we should use. Instead, dictionary writers pay close attention to language as it occurs naturally—in print and online publications, in speech, and in social media—and wait for the tipping point of frequency.
When a word is used broadly enough and often enough within a certain time period (and no, I don’t know the secret formula, but it’s real), then a new dictionary entry, definition, or even spelling alerts us that we’ve legitimized the usage to the point it merits recognition.
Lexicographers don’t create dictionaries. We do. Professional definers are simply the scribes and record keepers
What’s the point of dictionaries?
Copyeditors like to harp on consistency. Uniformity would be another good way to think about the concept. People need to use words in a consistent, uniform manner so that we easily understand one another when we communicate. And when the communication is in writing, spelling becomes part of the consistency requirement.
It’s important to be able to understand easily. We’re busy. Anyone can assign nonstandard meanings and spellings to words, and we may get it from context—but pausing to decipher, even for a second, takes work and slows us down. Just ask a second-grade teacher.
In a world of overflowing communication, who has time to figure out unique meanings and spellings? It’s a survival skill to quickly move on to someone who says or writes it in a way we can immediately decipher.
If it’s not there, is it real?
I’m not sure this will help settle arguments; but the sometimes-confusing truth is that if a word has ever been used to communicate with others, it’s real—although its usage numbers may not meet the mysterious inclusion formula. After all, lexicographers have only so much time to write definitions, and dictionaries can’t be endless.
When debating with family or friends whether a word exists even if it’s not in the dictionary, it might help to pull up this authoritative FAQ on “real words.”
So how do we make sense of dictionary entries?
I won’t speak for all dictionaries, but I will summarize what I know about how Merriam-Webster organizes its lexicographical references. Why that resource? It’s the one used by The Chicago Manual of Style, the primary style guide for book publishing; plus, the Merriam-Webster online version is always one of my open tabs in every browser. This digital alternative far surpasses its print counterpart in keeping up with the rapid pace of language change.
And I wouldn’t be surprised if other dictionaries follow a similar system of organizing and prioritizing.
Basically, it goes like this. When there’s more than one meaning for a word, the definitions are numbered. Each numbered category deals with one sense of a term’s multiple uses. And here’s where people get confused: The categories aren’t numbered in order of popularity or acceptance. Definition 1 isn’t most important.
Rather, they’re listed chronologically. The first category describes the oldest meaning, and the last category explains the most recent sense of the word’s usage. The definitional categories don’t necessarily build on each other, either. Sense 3 may have evolved from sense 2, but it just as easily might have arisen all on its own, completely separate from the term’s meaning in an earlier era.
The only relevant consideration is the date each sense became noticeable. It doesn’t matter whether the general categories of meaning are related to each other.
Also, each sense category often contains subcategories, labeled “a,” “b,” and so on. These subcategories are related to each other and are also listed chronologically within their larger, numbered category.
For a visual, the Merriam-Webster online entry for write is one example of numbered categories and lettered subcategories.
And yes, it’s possible that submeaning 1d might have arisen, historically speaking, later than did submeaning 2c. But because the overall sense of the word described in 1 existed in time before the broad category of meaning in definition 2, all the subcategories of 1 are listed previous to the start of the following numbered grouping.
We just need to remember, then, that definition numbers move from oldest to most recent; and within the numbers, the letters also move from oldest to most recent for that specific category of meaning.
In addition, the last meaning doesn’t make the first meaning obsolete. Any of the listed definitions are fair game, although some of the older meanings might seem obscure today.
Should we care that verbs are transitive or intransitive?
Absolutely. When using the verb in context, that distinction can make a difference. For instance, let’s look at the sentence “The newspaper scrunched.”
A transitive verb needs a direct object for its action. In other words, that type of verb must be doing something to someone or something. But an intransitive verb doesn’t need an object. My example sentence ends after “scrunched,” meaning the verb is intransitive: no object.
Checking the intransitive sense of scrunch, we see its earliest usage was “to move with or make a crunching sound,” and a more recent definition is “crouch, hunch; also squeeze.”
Frankly, I would be concerned if my newspaper performed any of those actions under its own volition, at least in a nonfantasy world. That tells me I’d better include an explanation for this scrunching: “The cat jumped onto the table and skidded across my reading material. The newspaper scrunched.” Now the paper has help moving with or making a crunching sound.
While we’re here, let’s take a look at the Merriam-Webster definitions for scrunch as a transitive verb (the one that needs a direct object for its action): “crunch, crush; to draw or squeeze together tightly; crumple—often used with up; to cause (something, such as one's features) to draw together—usually used with up.”
Does it make sense for a newspaper to scrunch anything? Again, not in my normal world. But in an alternate reality of dancing footstools and singing teapots, perhaps a newspaper could crunch itself—or crumple up the cat.
How to interpret or and also?
The distinction between or and also is another dictionary notation that can confuse. These two words signal what are called variants, which are different—yet acceptable—ways to spell a term.
But just how acceptable is a variant? Well, when the first spelling is followed by or and another spelling, the two alternatives are basically equal, and we can choose based on—get ready for this!—personal preference.
The only ways to get any type of ranking with or is (1) when the two options aren’t listed in alphabetical order, the first is a slightly more common spelling; and (2) if or is followed by “less commonly,” as we’re about to experience, it heralds a somewhat-more infrequent option.
My own constant companion of variant choice is “OK or okay or less commonly ok.” When writing very informally and in a hurry, I use the main entry OK. But because okay is just as acceptable, it’s the spelling I like in regular text. It integrates better, without the capitalization jumping off the page and screaming. And I just can’t make myself use anything deemed less common.
Also is even lower in the variant hierarchy. When a main spelling is followed by also, then the corresponding option occurs significantly less often in the wild. The variant isn’t exactly frowned upon, and we can use it if we want to, but we should do so fully armed with the knowledge we’re in the minority.
We can see this type of entry with the adjective aesthetic, where Merriam-Webster cautions us that if we’re writing for a US audience and use any of the multiple secondary variants esthetic, aesthetical, or esthetical, we’ll be taking the road less traveled. Or travelled.
It might help to know, too, that some publishers ask copyeditors and authors to consistently choose the first spelling a dictionary lists. Not only does this system help with uniformity; it also saves the time and energy of extra decision-making. More, when readers see the spelling they’re most accustomed to, they tend to stay in the flow a bit better.
Is a dictionary the final word?
Not always. Style guides such as The Chicago Manual of Style and usage experts like Bryan Garner (author of Garner’s Modern English Usage among several other language manuals) often step outside the dictionary’s descriptive function into the realm of analysis—and they may have strong opinions about not just the what but also the whether of meanings and spellings.
One term that readily illustrates this discrepancy is all right. Merriam-Webster defends the spelling variation alright:
Although the spelling alright is nearly as old as all right, some critics have insisted alright
is all wrong. Nevertheless it has its defenders and its users, who perhaps have been
influenced by analogy with altogether and already. It is less frequent than all right but
remains common especially in informal writing. It is quite common in fictional dialogue
and is sometimes found in more formal writing.
Meanwhile, The Chicago Manual of Style insists on all right: “Two words. Avoid alright, which has long been regarded as nonstandard.” Garner’s Modern English Usage agrees: “This short version may be gaining a shadowy acceptance. . . . Still, the combined version cannot yet be considered good usage—or even colloquially all right.”
As a copyeditor, I settle this argument according to which authority a given publisher places at the top of the heap. In fact, I use this arbitration method frequently, because style guides and dictionaries also don’t always agree on hyphens in compound adjectives.
Merriam-Webster makes no distinction between a compound adjective before a noun and one that follows the noun; as far as it’s concerned, “This is a middle-class neighborhood” and “The neighborhood is middle-class.”
But The Chicago Manual of Style includes an entire chart that lays out the many parts-of-speech contexts where a compound adjective is hyphenated before a noun but not after; here, it’s “This is a middle-class neighborhood” until the adjective trails the noun, when it becomes “The neighborhood is middle class.” We’re also given guidelines for hyphenating a compound versus making it one word. The chart is several pages long.
By the way, those are differentiations your software’s spell-check function probably doesn’t understand.
In my work, usually the style guide overrides the dictionary—unless an author strongly prefers a spelling or hyphenation that the guide disowns but the dictionary accepts. Then the author rules.
Are we using our word power for good?
Who knew cracking dictionary codes could be such fun—and give us so much power? But understanding our best resource for clear communication is the best and surest way to expand speaking, writing, and board-game prowess—and to amaze and delight readers, listeners, friends, and even families. I hope we all take advantage of lexicography’s magic.
Is there a contradictory word spelling or usage that confuses you? In the comments below, please share; perhaps together we can figure it out.