When to trust the dictionary

We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go: it heads right for the goddamned electrical sockets. We dress it in fancy clothes and tell it to behave, and it comes home with its underwear on its head and wearing someone else’s socks. As English grows, it lives its own life, and this is right and healthy. . . . we will never really be the boss of it. And that’s why it flourishes. (Kory Stamper, Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries)

Why would you ever not trust the dictionary? Right? The dictionary is the best, and we at Leff Communications rely on Merriam-Webster constantly.

Why Merriam-Webster? In general, it’s important to agree on reference material because that ensures consistency. But our specific allegiance was dictated by our bible of style, syntax, punctuation, and all other things wordsmith-y. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (or its ongoing online-only revision) and its chief abridgment, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (regularly updated online and referred to below as Webster’s), for general matters of spelling.

Need help spelling a word? Webster’s has you covered. Need to know if a compound is hyphenated, closed, or separated? For instance, is it non-profit or nonprofit? Webster’s will give you a consistent answer—in this case, the latter. Need to know if something is a legitimate word that is acceptable to use in your business writing? Maybe don’t turn to Webster’s.

Let me explain.

I recently read the incredibly entertaining book Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries by Kory Stamper, an editor at Merriam-Webster. In the book, she discusses what life is like working at the dictionary, bringing to light a profession I had thought would be nearly bygone. Someone wrote the dictionary once, so, like, that job is done, right? Not right. Language is changing all the time as words are taking on new meanings and new words are emerging (see twerk).

Because of all of this shifting and growing our language does, Stamper explains how they decide what goes into the dictionary—a task I’d never considered. In order for a definition or word to make it into Webster’s, those who work there need to find multiple instances of that use of the word in print or online—basically written down in some form. This means that the Webster’s definition of the word bitch includes “a lewd or immoral woman.” Although many find it offensive that the dictionary would give value to this definition of the word, the fact is, the word is frequently used in this way. They aren’t condoning it, necessarily. They’re merely reporting the way the language is used. That seems fair. After all, there needs to be a system in place.

But for those of us concerned with the precise and accepted uses of words, this reality might suggest that the dictionary is good for certain things you need to know but not all. For instance, although people may use a certain form of a word in writing, maybe there are stigmas attached to doing so or maybe the word is considered jargon. You can actually find all sorts of jargon in the dictionary (check out the noun definition of ask), but you still probably don’t want to use a whole bunch of that in your writing. It’s just not the best, clearest way of expressing yourself and your ideas because jargon is, by definition, pretentious, unoriginal, and imprecise—and it often does carry a stigma. Plus, using it just might get you lambasted in the Financial Times.

So how do you decide whether or not to use a word in a certain way?

I think it comes down to two things: sprachgefühl and research.

Sprachgefühl is essentially grammar and usage intuition. Your brain tells you, “Hmm . . . something about that just doesn’t seem quite right.” If your sprachgefühl alarm goes off, you do a little research. If you don’t have other trusted writers around to discuss with, try reading around to determine if others in your field use the word. And if they do, decide if you think it works.

Admittedly, it’s a bit of a wishy-washy system. For those who like hard rules to follow, my suggestions here are probably disconcerting. But really, language itself is wishy-washy; as I said, the way we use words changes constantly (see the second definition of literally). And it makes sense that Webster’s would catalog these shifts. But ultimately, you—or your communications team—get to make the call about what uses of words are appropriate in your business writing.

Annie Mullowney

As a senior editor, Annie focuses primarily on developmental editing and drafting, helping clients sharpen their stories and tell them in a compelling way.

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