Sharpening Your Tools

Thursday, May 08, 2014
Several years ago, a family member sent me a dictionary. Although the gift was gratefully received, I ended up having to give it away. Unfortunately, the dictionary was not one of the standards that writers and editors rely on.

One of a writer's best tools is the
dictionary--online and in print.
Photo credit | EKHumphrey

When I edit and write, I frequently refer to a dictionary. I use one so heavily I have online subscriptions and bookmarks galore. But not all writers believe the dictionary belongs in their toolbox. Aren’t we are far enough out of elementary school that we don’t need to use one anymore?

The Internet has certainly made it easier to search for words. But a dictionary can help to solve questions of word choice or to clear up a usage question. It is useful to know the standard reference works for when you do need to look up a word and, as can happen in my household, a child’s pocket dictionary just won’t cut it. At. All.

A writer needs to know reference works to refer to during those times and that there are standards.

For American editors using The Chicago Manual of Style, the recommended references are, in order of preference:
  • Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and
  • Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, refer to the latest edition (the online version has a great "user manual" for reacquainting yourself with the dictionary)
(If you are more of an Associated Press style person, the Webster’s New World College Dictionary, Fourth Edition, is the first reference with The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition, listed next.)

Here are some other uses and times to use a dictionary:
  • Trademarks – You don’t want to make the Mylar, Dumpster, or Teflon folks upset by not recognizing their trademarks
  • Preposition use – Is it correct to use on, in, or through? You bet that the dictionary can help clarify your preposition use
  • Finding synonyms (or antonyms) – We all need a little help finding a synonym now and then
  • To hyphenate or not – Don’t leave them out when they are needed
  • Usage – The dictionary generally has a few examples to help clarify how to use a word (think effect and affect, for example)
Googling a word makes finding a definition or its use easy, but it’s not always the best choice. I don’t know about you, but when I’m Googling, ever so often I’m looking to find information to buoy my beliefs about a word’s spelling or use:
  • Is there a space in “table cloth” (over 54 million hits) or “tablecloth” (over 19 million hits)? If you Google without quotation marks and perform a cursory review, you’d believe a space is OK. But, refer to Webster’s and you have the definitive answer.
As a serious writer, investing in a dictionary can help strengthen your writing, your submissions, and it makes writerly sense.

Elizabeth King Humphrey writes and refers to dictionaries in coastal North Carolina. And, yes, “writerly” is a word, no matter what my spellcheck tells me.


Sioux Roslawski said...

So Elizabeth, did you give away the gift because you already had some favorite dictionaries?

We are definitely spoiled these days. Online versions are so easy to use, along with our favorite hard copy/physical versions.

I DO wish there would be definitive answers to some of questions. Hyphenate or not? Put in a space or not? It's frustrating...

Sue Bradford Edwards said...

Look over my shoulder and you'll almost always see the dictionary open in my browser. How do people write without one?

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