The Language Perfectionist: What’s Wrong With Dictionaries?

“Let’s look it up in the dictionary.”

When people disagree about language, someone is bound to utter this sentence, as if it will settle everything. But the solution is not always so easy. Here’s why.

If you need the definition of an uncontroversial word, such as portico or remoulade, a dictionary is an appropriate tool. The problems arise with words whose meanings are routinely misused, abused, and in dispute. Examples include disinterested, enormity, and verbal – all of which have been discussed in this column.

Decades and centuries ago, dictionaries were prescriptive; they were authorities that told us what was right and wrong. Increasingly, however, they have become descriptive; they simply report on or reflect language as it is used. Thus, if a word is used often enough in the wrong sense, that sense is deemed “right” by popular, democratic vote.

This reasoning has never made much sense to me, but descriptivism is now accepted practice among lexicographers. Still, not all dictionaries are alike; some are more permissive than others. Some include “usage notes” indicating that the newer, permissive sense of a word is “nonstandard.” But you can’t always count on finding or trusting such warnings.

Thus, in addition to a good dictionary, every writer needs to have a good usage guide close at hand. Many choices exist, of varying quality and reliability. And no single volume covers everything. But here are three that have served me well for many years:

* The Elements of Style by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White

This is the classic – a slender volume packed with tips on how to write well and clear explanations of commonly disputed words and expressions. The current Fourth Edition was revised and updated after the deaths of the authors. Some sticklers take issue with the changes. Any version is useful, but if you’re a purist, you may wish to seek out an earlier edition.

* The Careful Writer by Theodore M. Bernstein

This is a much larger book, so it contains many references not found in Strunk and White. The author explains each point clearly and elegantly, with common sense and vivid examples.

* What in the Word? by Charles Harrington Elster

More recent than the above titles, this book covers more contemporary words and expressions. Moreover, it’s entertaining, written in a light, conversational style, and includes wordplay and fun facts about language. The author takes the sensible position that we should strike a balance, respecting tradition but also recognizing that language changes and evolves.

So don’t be cowed by the argument “It’s in the dictionary!” After all, dictionaries include the word ain’t. Keep one or more of these recommended volumes on your desk, and you’ll use the written and spoken word with greater skill and effectiveness.

[Ed Note: For more than three decades, Don Hauptman was a direct-response copywriter. He is author of the wordplay books Cruel and Unusual Puns and Acronymania, and is now writing a book that blends language and humor.]