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Can you trust your dictionary?
Sep 26, 2013


According to Robert Hartwell Fiske, author of the Dictionary of Unendurable English, we shouldn’t believe everything found in dictionaries. He writes, “The slang-filled eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary does as much as, if not more than, the famously derided Webster’s Third International Dictionary to discourage people from taking lexicographers seriously.”
Many, if not most, of today’s dictionaries are strictly “descriptive.” That is, they list words in current use without offering advice re good and bad usage. Dictionaries that do supply usage notes are known as “prescriptive.” They point out new or problem usage and note a word’s status in English.
Fiske prints 25 examples of misspellings and/or misuse in Merriam-Webster, for instance, saying that infer and imply mean the same thing. This dictionary also okays NU-kya-lar as a pronunciation for nuclear and “accidently” as a variant spelling of accidentally.
Merriam-Webster isn’t the only dictionary targeted by Fiske. He compares the manner in which five other dictionaries deal with those aforementioned 25 words. Even the New Oxford American falls short in 10 cases although it fares better than the others.
According to Fiske, Oxford American approves of alright for all right, anyways for anyway, in behalf of for on behalf of, and fearful for fearsome.
Twisty Tongue often cites the American Heritage Dictionary, but it ranks in only third place with 15 problems.
Every dictionary Fiske graded is a U.S, book, so I decided to check two Canadian publications for the faults caught by him — the Canadian Nelson and the Oxford Canadian.
Nelson lists alright but calls it non-standard and provides this usage note: “all right written as the single word alright has never been accepted as a variant spelling.”
Canadian Oxford offers no usage note but, in defining alright, says, “disputed variant of all right.”
Anyways, Nelson says, is non-standard for “in any case.” No note is attached.
Oxford says, “Anyways — N.A. informal — in any case.” No note.
In behalf of, according to Nelson, means, “for the benefit of.” On behalf of means, “as the agent of.” Nelson’s note adds, “Traditionally these phrases have distinct senses.”
Oxford  is wishy-washy here, saying, “On behalf of, also (especially in the U.S.) in behalf of.” No note.
Nelson says fearful should mean “afraid; frightened,” but is now often used to mean “causing or capable of causing fear,” which is actually the correct definition of fearsome.
Regarding infer, Oxford offers a first meaning of “deduce; conclude,” but also supplies another meaning — “imply; suggest.” While advising avoidance of this usage, the attached note says, “The use of infer in sense 2 is considered incorrect by many.”
Nelson’s note says it is problem usage to consider infer’s meaning as, “to hint.” Nelson advises imply when “to hint” is intended.
I found no misspellings in the words checked in the two Canadian dictionaries, but I reached the conclusion that Oxford is more tolerant of questionable usage than is Nelson. Oxford also offers fewer usage notes and those notes it does supply are neither as detailed nor as helpful as those in Nelson.