An American Editor

January 14, 2013

The Dictionary Conundrum: Thoughts About Meaning

I just finished reading The Story of Ain’t by David Skinner, a book about the creation of Webster’s Third New International Dictionary (the “Third”), which the author calls “the most controversial dictionary ever published.” He may be right because the dictionary was the first major American dictionary to become descriptive rather than prescriptive. (I am pleased to say that I received a hardcover version of the book as a holiday gift — as I had requested! The book is well worth buying and reading.)

(A tidbit of history: American Heritage Company [AH] wanted to buy the G&C Merriam Company, publishers of the Merriam-Webster line of dictionaries and the Third, and tried to use the controversy surrounding the Third to induce the Merriam shareholders to sell to American Heritage. When the shareholders continued to refuse to sell, AH decided to create its own dictionary from scratch. Thus, it would be fair to say that the Third was the progenitor of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. Also worth noting is that the Third is the progenitor of the usage notes that are a hallmark of the AH dictionaries, beginning with the first edition. The usage notes were devised as a response to what critics considered as a major failing of the Third.)

Reading the book and the controversy over what direction the Third should take in light of the overwhelming success of the encyclopedic Webster’s Second, brought me to pondering what a word means. I know that I and other editors rely on dictionaries for more than spelling. It is important to also know that a word with which we are not fully familiar is not only spelled correctly but used correctly — and that is the problem. How do we know it is used correctly?

A significant signpost of correct usage is a word’s meaning. Does the word really mean what the author implies it means via use and location within a sentence? Which leads to perhaps a more fundamental question: How many times have we looked up a word’s definition only to discover that we do not understand the definition any better than we understand the word we are checking on?

The problem is that to understand a word’s definition we must also agree as to the meaning of the words used to define the definition. Consider this definition in Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate (MW11) for tautology:

1 a. needless repetition of an idea, statement, or word; b. an instance of tautology; 2. a tautologous statement

What does that mean? How does repeating the word in the definition define the word? (I also love entries that simply say “see ____.”)

To understand what an apple is, we must have some common experience background and universal agreement that the word apple is a symbol for a particular object. If I call a round, red object a glyzzle, it is unlikely that you will know whether I mean a ball or an apple or something else because we have no universal understanding of glyzzle.

The same holds true of dictionary definitions. To say that a tautology is a tautologous statement is the same as saying the aliens are invading; that is, the definition is as foreign to an understanding as aliens invading are to our reality — unless we already understand what is meant by tautologus. But if we already understand what is meant by tautologous, why are we looking up tautology? The latter is incorporated in the former.

My point is that dictionaries can be helpful but are often unhelpful because they make a leap that is unsupported by the very reason for the dictionary’s existence: The dictionary assumes that the user already has an understanding of the terms being looked up and so the definitions can be circuitous. I grant that this is not true of all words and their definitions, but it is true of too many words and their definitions.

Why does this bother me? Because I can’t figure out how to explain a word’s meaning to someone who hasn’t had the same language experience as I have had. How do I define apple to someone who only knows glyzzle when I do not know if glyzzle and apple are synonymous? The immediate response is that we are talking two different languages — but are we?

Think about regionalisms. Words have different connotations, and thus different meanings, even though the same language is being used, when used by persons from different geographic regions of a country. To a New Englander, apple may well mean the Macintosh variety whereas to a Pacific Northwester apple may immediately conjure a red delicious apple. Yes, they are both apples, being varieties thereof, but the meaning of apple is significantly different — the shapes and taste of Macintosh and red delicious apples are significantly different, so much so that one cannot be readily substituted for the other. (In contrast, the Empire and Macintosh varieties are similar enough to be confused each with the other until bitten.)

Dictionaries are supposed to be revealers of meaning. The idea of a dictionary is not just spelling — because if that were its only function, it could be just a list of correctly spelled words — but also to arbitrate meaning so that every speaker of a language can look up a word and instantly know what the user of the word truly meant because both user and reader face the same definition and have the same understanding of meaning.

Yet as each book I edit goes by, I become increasingly concerned that dictionaries are not fulfilling this primary role (regardless of whether the dictionary’s focus is descriptive or prescriptive) because the definitions provided assume the same cultural foundation has been had by all users. In other words, the definitions are themselves so poorly worded that even two people who grew up in the same town and went to the same schools may not have the same understanding of a word’s meaning.

It is not that conformity is the goal or should be the goal; rather, it is that in the absence of conformity, communication suffers. And the goal of the editor-author-reader relationship is clear communication. Which brings me to the need for an editor to have multiple dictionaries. I have found that the quality of definitions differs on a word basis between dictionaries. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (5th ed.) (AHD), for example, gives a much better definition of tautology than does MW11. Consequently, I make it a practice to look up a word in more than one dictionary, whether the dictionary be a general dictionary like MW11 and AHD or specialty dictionaries. (It is probably worth pointing out that the greatest offenders of circuitous definitions are specialty dictionaries. Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 32nd ed, and Stedman’s Medical Dictionary, 28th ed., are prime examples of dictionaries that define a word with another form of the word.) Like all professional editors, I like to be sure that I understand what a word means before deciding whether or not the author has used it correctly. I also want to be sure that it communicates correctly to the reader.

December 26, 2011

Working Effectively as an Editor — New Print Resources

In recent weeks, two new publications have appeared: Cite Right, 2nd ed., by Charles Lipson (ISBN 978-0-226-48464-8), and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 5th ed (ISBN 978-0-547-04101-8).

Although I have the print versions of Scientific Style and Format (7th ed), by the Council of Science Editors; The Chicago Manual of Style (16th ed); the American Psychological Association’s Publication Manual (6th ed); and the American Medical Association’s Manual of Style (10th ed) within arm’s reach at all times (plus previous editions of these books also readily available), Cite Right is a timesaver and the first place I look for a quick answer to a reference styling question.

Alas, the second edition, published by, as “proudly” noted on the front cover, “…the University of Chicago Press, publisher of the The Chicago Manual of Style” suffers from the some of the same problems that the original release of the Chicago Manual (16th ed) did: a critical resource was not carefully checked for accuracy. I’ve noted a couple of errors in Cite Right, but even with those errors, this is a valuable tool for an editor.

A professional editor would not — should not — rely on a secondary source for primary source information. Rather, the secondary source should be used to refresh one’s primary source memory information. If used in this manner, that is, you have familiarized yourself with the primary source and have access to the primary source, but use Cite Right for a quick refresher of a style question you haven’t come across recently, then Cite Right is an excellent tool — and it is reasonably priced (list price is $14; discounted price at B&N.com is $10.45). If you deal with references, and if you deal with more than one reference style manual, Cite Right should be sitting on your desk within easy reach. Among the various styles it includes are these: Chicago (Turabian), American Psychological Association (APA), American Medical Association (AMA), Council of Science Editors (CSE), American Chemical Society (ACS), Modern Language Association (MLA), and American Anthropological Association (AAA).

As pleased as I was to see a new edition of Cite Right, I was even more pleased to see a new edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. I own — and use — a lot of dictionaries. I like to compare usage, spelling, and definitions. Usually they are in agreement, but sometimes they do disagree. Also important is that coverage is not precisely identical as the editorial boards of the various dictionaries often decide differently about whether to include a “new” word.

Of all the single-volume dictionaries for American English that I use, the American Heritage Dictionary (AHD) is by far my favorite. I especially like its choice of font. As I’ve gotten older, and my eyes have gotten wearier, I increasingly appreciate the design of the AHD. Counterbalancing that, however, is the AHD’s physical dimensions and weight. Compared to the AHD, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed) is like a feather. Yet, I reach for AHD first.

A nice feature of the AHD is that for some entries it offers synonyms and usage information. That ties in nicely with my interest in word origins and usage (I do need to start writing again about usage and word histories; it has been too long since I last did so). I especially like reading divergent views about a word’s usage (which is why Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage [3rd ed] is always nearby), because of the insight into language it can provide.

In any event, the fifth edition of AHD was published last month and it is a worthy, albeit not inexpensive (list price $60, discounted price at B&N $38.46), addition to any professional editor’s resources, even if your clients consistently prefer a different dictionary. AHD is worthwhile as a supplement that provides insight into our language, something that many of its competitors lack.

One negative I have found to being a professional editor is the constant procession of new or updated resources that I “need” in my library. I admit that I am always on the lookout for print resources that improve my editing skills and knowledge, which, hopefully, increases my value to my clients and prospective clients. But I am careful not to let these resources sidetrack me, which can easily happen. Books like Cite Right and The American Heritage Dictionary serve useful purposes, but they are not a substitute for a good grasp of editing fundamentals. That is something to keep in mind, especially if you are looking to hire a professional editor: An editor’s bookshelf can provide an insight into the editor’s skill level and interest, but is not a substitute for those skills. The resources an editor uses should complement the skills the editor has and applies.

December 19, 2011

Working Effectively Online VI — The Books

One thing I have noticed when discussing resources with my colleagues nowadays is that they often rely on online resources rather than printed books for everything they can. For example, rather than opening The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, now in its just-released fifth edition, to check a spelling or a definition, they will go to Dictionary.com or Merriam-Webster online.

The good about doing so is that (presumably) the online sources are not only accurate, but are updated regularly and thus more current, than a print book can be, at least if the supplementation is in print form. Even the venerated Oxford English Dictionary has turned to online, offering a year’s subscription for the (relatively) paltry sum of $295.

I don’t disapprove of using online resources — as long as one is choosy about the resource. What is good about the Internet is also what is bad about the Internet. It is easy to post information; anyone can do it. I make use of online resources that are specific to the type of editing I do and that are no longer available in print form or I don’t use often enough to warrant purchase of a print version. Three good examples for me are the National Library of Medicine (NLM)’s Catalog, which provides access to NLM bibliographic data for journals and books; NLM’s PubMed, which comprises more than 21 million citations for biomedical literature from MEDLINE, life science journals, and online books; and Integrated Taxonomic Information System (ITIS)’s Catalogue of Life: 2011 Annual Checklist, a comprehensive catalogue of all known species of organisms on Earth that contains 1,347,224 species, which is probably just slightly over 2/3 of the world’s known species.

But when it comes chemical compounds, spelling, definitions, grammar, and usage, I prefer the printed book.

I was thinking about this anomaly — doing 100% of my editing work online yet still using print resources to check things — and wondering whether my continued reliance on print books as resources lessens the effectiveness of my online editing. Alas, I can come to no definitive conclusion.

The answer is, at best, “maybe or maybe not.” For example, in experimenting with using Dorland’s Illustrated Medical Dictionary (31st ed.) online versus the print version, I discovered that the online version is ill-designed and requires multiple steps to get to what may be a dead end. Generally, I found using the print version easier and quicker. The same was true when I experimented with Stedman’s Medical Dictionary (28th edition).

I also have a habit of liking to look in multiple sources. As a result, I have built up a good library that is focused on my subject areas. I also like to check history. For example, while Dorland’s 31st likes eponyms to be nonpossessive, the possessive was preferred for years and many editions past. When a client insists that, for a particular book, the possessive needs to be used except in those instances that were specifically noted to be nonpossessive (I always loved that about Dorland’s — there was no rhyme nor reason to when an eponym was possessive or not; they were just possessive or not — before the 31st edition), I simply whip out a copy of an earlier edition, something I cannot do with online sources.

Let’s not forget the expense. A lot of colleagues use only free resources. I’ve always been leery of free sources. After all, it takes time and money to put this material together, to check it for accuracy, and to update it. I know I struggle just to find time to update the list of books I’ve edited, to the point that I have neglected to do the updating for a couple of years. I’ve viewed this like the free antivirus programs — they are great until the first time they aren’t great. We all know that the free antivirus program cannot be as good as the paid version of the same program for the logical reason that, if it were as good, the company would be out of business.

The online sources that I would rely on in many areas are not inexpensive. And the cost grows as one renews each year. In contrast, I buy a print book and its cost amortizes over the years of use; it is a one-time payment, which appeals to the frugal in me.

Regardless of whether we use print or online resources, the bottom-line is whether we use a sufficient number and variety of resources to ensure that we are providing the best quality of editing or information that we can to our clients. I once asked at a seminar, “How many editors present regularly check word usage and if you do, in how many sources?” I was surprised to discover how few check usage and wasn’t surprised that those who do usually check one source. When I probed further, I discovered that usage was checked by Binging or Googling.

I admit that I had never thought to Bing or Google a usage question; I have always turned to the various usage books I have sitting next to my desk. Interestingly, the most important usage guide for American English, Garner’s Modern American Usage (3rd edition) by Bryan Garner, isn’t available online except as part of Oxford University Press’ Dictionary Pro package, which must be expensive because they don’t post a price — you have to request it.

I guess this is one area where one has to compromise. Some things are readily and reliably researched online; some things are better researched in print. Whatever your editorial field is, you need to keep handy both online and print resources. The biggest advantage that print has is the ability to go back to earlier editions if necessary — online resources tend to always go forward without preserving the previous. Yet, as I have discovered on several occasions, there are times when the answer to a question cannot be found in the current edition, but can be found in a previous edition, which is why I keep past editions of all my resource books.

I suspect that in future years fewer print resources will be used by editors and a greater reliance will be placed on online resources, especially as those of us who grew up using print resources retire and those who grew up on the Internet take over.

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