What Does the Word Dictionary Mean?

On several occasions in this relatively young blog, Sherry and I have stated that the mere presence of a word in a dictionary does not necessarily mean that the word is an acceptable word, and, understandably, some of you have asked us to expand on what we mean. I will try to briefly do so here.

We believe that dictionaries are best used as sources of common usage, not necessarily correct usage. In other words, dictionaries accurately reflect what is being said by the public; however, what is being said is not always correct. I often use ain’t as an example. When I was young, we used to say ain’t ain’t a word because ain’t ain’t in the dictionary. Well, during the nearly 40 years since then, ain’t has been said so often that it does, indeed, now appear in many dictionaries. It’s still not an acceptable word; however, widespread use means that nearly all dictionaries have decided to include it.

Granted, ain’t is typically listed as substandard or non-standard, both of which should let readers know that it’s a less-than-acceptable word choice; however, many of us have been so trained to believe that any entry in a dictionary is a word so that it can be interpreted as being acceptable by its mere presence in a dictionary.

I use ain’t as an example because we should all know that it’s not a word; however, there are other words that have equally questionable backgrounds that have been used often enough to be accepted in dictionaries–sometimes without the delineation of being substandard or non-standard and sometimes with it. Sherry wrote about drug as a non-standard past tense of drag. That’s a good example since there is no logic to having two past tense forms of the same verb, and dragged is most certainly correct since drag is a regular verb, not an irregular verb. Read her post (Look What the Cat Dragged In) for more details. Another good example is dove, which is encouraged as an accepted past tense of dive but does not have the delineation of being either non-standard or substandard; Sherry will write about that word soon.

We understand, of course, that this is a grey area of language, and many of you will not agree with us when we challenge dictionary usage. We will, however, use common sense in addition to grammar rules in order to explain the logic of our recommended usage; then, you can decide whether you want to follow our suggestions or follow your favorite dictionary. 

It’s quite all right if you don’t agree–after all, the name of the blog is Everything Language and Grammar, not We’re the Dictators of Everything Language and Grammar.  

–Paul

Paul’s book–Literally, the Best Language Book Ever

Sherry’s Grammar List

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2 Responses to What Does the Word Dictionary Mean?

  1. nick says:

    Hi, Paul
    Can you help me with this question?
    Endeavor is spelled endeavor in my dictionary.
    Is it ever correctly spelled endever?

    thanks,
    Nick

    Reply from Paul: I’m no language historian, but I have certainly never seen it spelled endever. With that spelling, I would expect it to have a different meaning than endeavor. I guess it would be a fairly easy typo to make, though!

  2. nick says:

    thanks , Paul

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