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English Plus+ News, November 2000

The Two Kinds of Dictionaries

Descriptive and Prescriptive Dictionaries

Many times discussions or arguments about correct usage in English are settled by looking things up in a dictionary. Many times people are surprised, and even shocked, with what they find in the dictionary when they look something up. Maybe they are looking things up in the wrong kind of dictionary.

When I was young, we used to have a little joke that went, "There ain't no such word as ain't because ain't ain't in the dictionary." Most of us had been corrected by teachers, if not parents, not to use the word ain't. Imagine my surprise when, just for fun, I looked up the word, and there it was, right in my school's Thorndike-Barnhart Junior School Dictionary.My teachers had told me there was no such word - after all, what did ai not mean? - but there is was such a word. It was in the dictionary.

This was my introduction to the reality that there are two different editorial policies used by the editors of dictionaries. The terms we use to describe them are descriptive and prescriptive. You can probably figure out what they mean.

Descriptive dictionaries describe the language. They include words that are commonly used even if they are nonstandard. They will often include nonstandard spellings. Prescriptive dictionaries tend to be more concerned about correct or standard English. They prescribe the proper usage and spelling of words. That school dictionary in which I found ain't was a descriptive dictionary.

Descriptive Dictionaries

The truth of the matter is that today virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive. The editors will usually say that they are simply recording the language and how its words are used and spelled. True, there may be some guidance. For example, most Merriam-Webster dictionaries will note if certain words are deemed nonstandard or offensive by most users; however, the words are still included. Of modern dictionaries, only the Funk and Wagnall's contains a certain amount of prescriptive advice. All the major dictionary publishers - Merriam-Webster, Times-Mirror, World Book, and Funk and Wagnall's - will tell you that they are primarily descriptive.

Historically, Dictionaries were Prescriptive

This was not the case with the first dictionaries in England and America. They were prescriptive. Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language (1755) had social commentary and jokes. He was writing to entertain as well as inform. Johnson also came to the conclusion that the English language could not be proscribed - it could not be limited to only a certain number of words. This, though, had nothing to do with correctness or propriety.

American Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was also prescriptive. Webster had been publishing a spelling book for schools since the 1780's. He was motivated by a utilitarian view of spelling as well as a concern for precise communication. His definitions tend to be far more precise than those in many dictionaries today. His book also prescribes certain spellings and uses for many words. About twenty years ago, a publisher saw a need and reprinted the 1828 Webster dictionary. It has been a steady seller since then in spite of its lack of modern terms because many people are still looking for dictionaries to provide guidance.

Make Sure Your Needs are Being Met

What does this mean in practical terms? Dictionaries are very helpful tools for finding the meaning of words, and even spelling in most cases. However, for more information on using words in a standard manner, use a grammar text or reference unless you have one of the few remaining prescriptive dictionaries.

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May all your anguish be vanquished,

Your friends at English Plus+

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