Your students should use Merriam-Webster.com, for sure. It’s the best dictionary for everyday purposes, and I’ll explain why after I give you a bit of background and do some complaining.
Once upon a time, I might have recommended the New Oxford New American Dictionary. But the print edition hasn’t been updated since 2010, and its free online sibling is a bit of a project to find. Click here, and where you see “Dictionary” in white-on-black letters, scroll down to “Dictionary (US).”
I definitely would have recommended the American Heritage Dictionary. It’s still good. But once upon a time, it had ample resources and wasn’t shy about offering informed, expert advice. I was thrilled when, years ago, the AHD invited me to become a member of its “usage panel.” But last month, after half a century’s existence, the usage panel was disbanded. And as of this spring, the AHD’s editorial staff will consist of one part-time lexicographer. The AHD ain’t what it used to be.
The American Heritage Dictionary was launched in 1969, with the goal of restoring lexicographical standards that many felt had been recklessly abandoned when Merriam-Webster published Webster’s Third Unabridged, in 1961. Web3 did away with usage labels like “colloquial,” “incorrect,” and “humorous.” It lopped 250,000 entries out of its predecessor to make room for 100,000 new words (“unabridged,” eh?). And it was “descriptive,” promising only to inform people about how words are used. If folks said “irregardless,” then “irregardless” was a word worthy of inclusion. (Okay, Web3 does label it “nonstand.”)
Its predecessor, Webster’s Second, published in 1934, is widely acknowledged to have been magisterial in its day. It was proudly “prescriptive,” advising people how to use words. According to W2, “irregardless” is “Erron. or Humorous, U. S.”
The outrage that, in some quarters, arose when Web2 abdicated in favor of Web3 led to the creation of the AHD. It assembled an impressive hundred-member usage panel (Isaac Asimov! Alistair Cooke! Langston Hughes! Barbara Tuchman!). Their collated opinions about the likes of between you and I were presented as notes beneath the relevant headwords (99 percent of the panel disapproved of between you and I—and I sure wish I knew who the rebel was). As for “irregardless,” it doesn’t look as if the first edition’s lexicographers even bothered to ask for the panel’s opinions. The note beneath the word reads, “Usage: Irregardless, a double negative, is never acceptable except when the intent is clearly humorous.”
But the AHD, along with the other major dictionaries, has by now slid some distance down the slippery slope whose bottom Web3 was so eager to reach. Heck, even the incomparable but special-purpose OED now tells you that “literally” can mean “figuratively.”
To be sure, descriptivism has qualities that many find appealing. It presents itself as egalitarian, answering “Why should we privilege the locutions of dead white men?” with “We shouldn’t, and we don’t. We tell you how a range of past and present English speakers use words and encourage you to make choices for yourself.” I mistrust that claim, because no doubt all sorts of biases lurk in the underlying data. What’s more, if dictionaries really wanted to help writers and speakers of various English dialects use them more effectively, shouldn’t there be specific dictionaries for many more subsets of English than there are? All the dictionaries I’m discussing purport to cover all dialects.
Second, descriptivism is a definable goal that for-profit companies, which publish most dictionaries, can comfortably aim for. Data about word usage is in limitless supply, and it’s cheap and superficially unambiguous, while discernment about usage can be hard to find, costly to engage, and easy to doubt and argue with.
Finally, descriptivism feels scientific, like linguistics. And up to a point, it is scientific. Today’s lexicographers have at their command astonishing “corpora”—huge electronic compiled bodies of language, drawn from a wide range of spoken and printed sources—to tease out new information about how the language is used. Big data!
Would you, however, consider it a good idea to fold your school’s English composition program into its linguistics department? The two have different purposes and use different methods. The purpose of dictionaries was, until the 1960s, neatly aligned with the purposes of English composition courses: to teach people how to use our common language correctly, clearly, and effectively. Web3 and its successors, including M-W.com, have washed their hands of that responsibility. I’ve even heard lexicographers make fun of the idea that that’s their job. Meanwhile, the rest of us turn to dictionaries in hopes they’ll teach us to use language better. Sorry, that’s not what they do anymore.
So why is M-W.com the best dictionary for everyday purposes? Because it’s free, readily available, and easy to use. It has usage notes that give sound guidance. It’s online (as the others are too), so you always see the latest versions of entries. Merriam-Webster itself admits that its .com dictionary is more up to date than the latest edition of its Collegiate. And the Collegiate—and therefore, I have to assume, M-W.com—is in wide use. Stylebooks including The Chicago Manual, and periodicals ranging from The New Yorker to MIT Technology Review, have it as their house dictionary.
In descriptivism—as in other things I like better, such as evolution—success breeds success. If the nation’s most widely used dictionary says that the verb “face-palm” is written with a hyphen and “humblebrag” is not, that in itself is bound to skew the words’ spelling toward those choices—until the people who mostly use them decide dictionaries are irrelevant. I’ll write some other time about how to go around dictionaries direct to the sources and be your own lexicographer.
Credit: Pixabay Image 1798 by PublicDomainPictures, used under a CC0 Creative Commons License