Can You Trust Your Dictionary?

The Canadian Oxford can be a writer's best friend—if they understand its limitations

Word Nerd
Word Nerd

I would not be able to do my job without my trusty Canadian Oxford Dictionary. For years, I made do with a softcover version, but I had to give it up after my cat chewed and then swallowed the entries for transgress, transgression, trash talk, and trashy. Now the magnificent 1,815-page hardcover version sits in the corner of my desk (I just used it to confirm that softcover and hardcover don’t need hyphens). But dictionaries, even when they are thorough, helpful, and 1,815 pages in length, should be approached with caution and used with care. They can do many things, but not everything—and they’re most useful when you understand their limitations.

For a long time, I thought dictionaries were like stern and infallible schoolmasters in book form: demanding and judgmental, but fair. If someone else used a stupid and obviously made-up word, I had full confidence that I could turn to a dictionary and find incontrovertible proof that the word was stupid and made up. If someone used a word to mean something I was pretty sure it did not mean, I knew a dictionary would tell me what the word meant, what it had always meant, and what it would continue to mean for all time.

I had, of course, gotten dictionaries entirely wrong. They are not prescriptive resources—full of rules and unbreakable dictates—but descriptive ones: they respond (if belatedly) to the ways in which people are actually using language. And people have a tendency to use language “incorrectly.” Eventually, so many people use the same word incorrectly that its new meaning is added to the dictionary.

Both Canadian Oxford and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary indicate—without any accompanying usage note—that it’s fine to use stunk as the past form of stink. Those of us who studied grammar and memorized things very carefully and hoped very much that nothing would ever change were taught that while stunk is the past participle, stank is the past form: I stink right now; I stank for much of last year; I have stunk for much of my life. But “I stunk for much of last year” is now sanctioned by at least some authorities. I have no interest in fighting a rearguard action in defense of stank, but it’s worth noting that dictionaries do include entries that grammarians would take issue with. “But it’s in the dictionary!” will not save you from the sticklers.

Usage notes are critical because they can tell you, for example, that fulsome means a couple of different (pretty much contradictory) things, so you should be careful with it. They can tip you off to a word that may throw readers into fits. I myself am thrown into fits when impact is used as a verb. The Canadian Oxford follows up its definition of impact (v.) with “Some people object to these uses of impact, but they are well established in both spoken and written English and are acceptable. However, the use of ‘impact’ may sound jargony and lead to imprecise sentences . . .” It is making two important points: (1) some people hate impact, and (2) those people are wrong. I would dispute the latter, but the former is undeniable, and writers should know whether the words they’ve chosen (however benign they may seem) are likely to enrage their readers—which is why it’s unfortunate that Webster’s contains no note in its entry on impact. Because of the lack of a “use only at your own risk” warning, writers could find themselves receiving the kind of venomous messages one associates with the impact page of the Merriam-Webster website.

The descriptive nature of dictionaries gives rise to dilemmas and misunderstandings especially in regard to hyphens, which are already notoriously tricky things.

On the Canadian War Museum’s website (under the heading “Disillusionment, Fear, and the Threat of Future War”), we find the following: “The post-war world was weary, indebted, and disillusioned. Intellectuals and ordinary civilians questioned the notion of human progress and scientific rationality that pre-war generations had believed natural and indefinite.”

Words such as pre-war and post-war may be treated differently in different dictionaries; some opt for the hyphens, and others don’t. That’s why organizations such as The Walrus have a house dictionary (in our case, the aforementioned Canadian Oxford): it is our self-adopted authority and makes such decisions for us. Except when it doesn’t. The Canadian Oxford gives postwar, but then turns around and suggests pre-war. This is not the only case in which it recommends seemingly inconsistent spellings for words in the same category: we also find coordinate and co-operate. The dictionary itself would have come across more instances of each—it simply records what it is out there. So if one were to write “Coordination in the pre-war period was nothing compared to the co-operation of the postwar years,” one would not be wrong. All the words are, after all, spelled correctly. But it would look peculiar and suggest the writer and editor had not been paying very close attention—even when all they were doing was following the dictionary’s instructions. When a situation like this arises, then, it is up to the editor to make a call, even if doing so means they’re going against their dictionary.

But, as I learned to my great shock and dismay during my first copy-editing course, dictionaries can create an even more serious form of hyphen-related confusion. You may have noticed that in Canadian Oxford’s impact usage note, well established is not hyphenated (“Some people object to these uses of impact, but they are well established in both spoken and written English and are acceptable”). The entry for well established in that same book, however, gives the hyphenated form (and Microsoft Word’s built-in grammar editor is urging me to go with that one as well). This discrepancy does not suggest that Canadian Oxford has subpar proofreaders; it’s an indication that words are hyphenated depending on where they fall in a sentence. Generally, if a compound adjective comes before a noun, it gets a hyphen: “These well-established uses of impact are acceptable.” But if a compound adjectives comes after a noun, it’s left open: “The well-known author,” but “The author is well known.” Dictionaries include the hyphenated versions because they occur more often in written works, the result of certain common approaches to the structuring of sentences—not because they are always and in all circumstances correct.

A good dictionary is invaluable. Irreplaceable. The kind of thing you should keep close by and refer to frequently and protect from cats. But if your plan is to write thoughtfully and well, it shouldn’t be the only book on your desk: you should invest in style guides and grammar manuals, too—and spend at least some time finding the angriest commenters on the internet.

Sarah Sweet
Sarah Sweet (@catastrophizer) is the magazine's copy editor.