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.]

Don Hauptman was an award-winning independent direct-response copywriter and creative consultant for more than 30 years. He may be best known for his headline “Speak Spanish [French, German, etc.] Like a Diplomat!” This familiar series of ads sold spectacular numbers of recorded foreign language lessons for Audio-Forum, generating revenues that total in the tens of millions of dollars. In the process, the ad achieved the status of an industry classic. Don’s work is mentioned in three major college advertising textbooks, and examples of his promotions are cited in the books Million Dollar Mailings (1992) and World's Greatest Direct Mail Sales Letters (1996). In a column in Advertising Age, his name was included in a short list of direct-marketing “superstars.” He has a parallel career as a writer on language and wordplay. His celebration of spoonerisms, Cruel and Unusual Puns (Dell, 1991), received rave reviews and quickly went into a second printing. His second book was Acronymania (Dell, 1993). Recently, Don retired from full-time copywriting in order to focus on other interests, including his passion for “recreational linguistics.” He is at work on a new book in that genre. He is a regular contributor to the magazine Word Ways and writes “The Language Perfectionist,” a weekly column on grammar and usage, for Early to Rise. Don is author of The Versatile Freelancer,an e-book from American Writers and Artists, Inc. (AWAI) that shows copywriters – and almost anyone – how to diversify their careers into consulting, training, critiquing, and speaking.