But It Says So in My Dictionary!

As a teacher of college composition and literature, a writer, and an editor–and as a person–I care a great deal about this wonderful English language. That being the case, when I find a word used in a wrong way, that grates on my nerves. Yesterday, for example, I ran across an article on The Huffington Post on the subject of the scientific meaning of the word, theory. In common usage, the word is treated as a synonym for guess or conjecture, but in science, it means an explanation of data that has been confirmed by observation or experiment.

But some of the readers who commented on the article insisted that because their dictionaries tell them that theory also means guess, there’s nothing wrong with using it in that sloppy manner. This reveals a fundamental problem with how people understand what their dictionaries do. Dictionaries can be prescriptive or descriptive.

1. Prescriptive

This is the kind of dictionary that tells us what a word is supposed to mean. It aims at teaching best practice in language. Noah Webster used his to reshape American English into something different from that found in British writing. This is why Americans typically write honor and color, rather than honour and colour.

450px-Noah_Webster_engraving

2. Descriptive

By contrast, the descriptive approach seeks to compile the way a word is used or has been used. One famous example of this is the Oxford English Dictionay.

Oxford_English_Dictionary_2nd

The O.E.D. asks readers to send in examples of words that they find in published material, and the editors compile these into a sampling of those words’ history. J.R.R. Tolkien spent a couple of years after the First World War working on the entries for W, something that surprises no one who knows much about his interests. (That sentence brought to you by the letter W.)

But just because many people use a word in a particular way doesn’t mean that this is the best usage. Consider some examples. Many think that the word, issue, is a synonym for problem. But issue must always involve something being sent out. When I hear that a person has issues, I have to wonder what the person’s sores are giving to the world. As a figure of speech, issue is acceptable as a word to describe a topic of debate, such as the issue of gun control, since that topic is being sent back and forth between sides of the argument. Or take impact. Today, we hear it used in place of effect all too often. Impact means a blow, which makes talking about the impact of healthcare reform a disturbing subject of discussion–an issue, perhaps? Then there’s nauseous. How often has someone said to you, “I feel nauseous”? The word means a quality that causes illness, thus such a person is claiming to make others sick.

Now if your characters are speaking, feel free to make them misuse words in whatever way is appropriate to who they are. But in your own expression, you ought to be better than errors such as what I illustrated above. I know, I know, people at this point will say that Shakespeare or Chaucer or Milton or so on and so forth and such like used words in the way that today’s lazy person wishes to use them. Fine. If you’re Shakespeare or the like, feel free to do as you choose. But if you’re still working on getting to that exalted state, pay attention to best usage.

Crossposted on English 301: Reading and Writing.

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