But, it’s in the Dictionary!

By Maeve Maddox

Sometimes readers respond to my rejection of a given word or spelling with the argument that it’s “in the dictionary.”

My response is that dictionaries are not scripture. Just because a word is in the dictionary does not mean that it’s an acceptable choice for all speakers and writers in all contexts. The recent discussion on mankind vs humankind certainly bears that out.

Then there’s the fact that more than one variety of “standard English” is spoken and written in the world. British speakers write honour where Americans write honor. Americans write the noun percent as one word; British speakers as two: per cent. Region and audience will determine which are the “correct” spellings.

A good dictionary is the writer’s indispensable tool. I consult both the OED and Merriam-Webster Unabridged in the process of writing every post. I do not, however, take the view that because a particular spelling is included as an entry or given as an alternate spelling that it is “just as good as” a more conventional word or spelling.

I’ll give just two words to illustrate: alright and irregardless. Both words have separate entries in both of my dictionaries.

alright: a frequent spelling of all right –OED

alright: in reputable use although all right is more common –Merriam-Webster

irregardless:probably blend of irrespective and regardless; [nonstandard] –Merriam-Webster

irregardless: in nonstandard or humorous use: regardless –OED

The spelling alright is to be found in Middle English. The Online Etymology Dictionary points out that in modern use the spelling is “attested since 1893.” Nevertheless, the spelling alright screams “incorrect” at me. I would never use it in my own writing, and it distracts me in the writing of others.

As for “irregardless,” I might use the word as a speech tag to characterize a fictional character, but I’d never use it in my own speech or writing. Other speakers and writers, on the other hand, have embraced the word.

Dictionaries, like spell checkers, are useful up to a point. The “point” is the place at which the writer’s background, education, personality, and purpose are called into play.

Without a single red underline, my spell checker permits me to write

I seen there faces threw the window.”

It’s up to me whether or not I want to leave it that way.

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8 Responses to “But, it’s in the Dictionary!”

  • Ms. B.

    This how I feel about the word “impact” as a verb – as in being dramatically influenced. I hate it! “But it’s in the dictionary!” is the response I get. gahhh!

  • Eric C

    I love that second to last sentence. Hilarious.

  • Peyton Farquhar

    Same can be said for traveler – I’ve seen it spelled with two L’s, which is chiefly British according to most dictionaries. But who really sweats over the inclusion of an extra “L” and/or the “U” as in honor and humor when most don’t really know one way or the other which version -if any- is correct. What really chaps my ass is to see words like weird and tongue misspelled time after time because any spellchecker will pick it up immediately.

  • David

    For a guy, I spell fairly well, and was proud (32 years ago) to hand in a college vocabulary and spelling test believing I would get 100% as they were all words I knew.

    I did receive the highest grade in the class, but still missed one. My instructor said I was wrong on “alright” which I then challenged as correct due to the fact that I had always been taught the word was correctly spelled and that the dictionary had it, too.

    I looked it up in class, shook his head and said, “I never knew that was a legitimate spelling.” He granted me the 100%.

    Maybe it’s time for you to change your rigid bias. No one knows everything.

  • Don

    To your point that dictionaries are not scripture, I’d add this: They are descriptive, not proscriptive. In other words, they’re not rulebooks–even though many people think of them in that way. Modern lexicographers see their job as recording the way people use language rather than judging how they use it.

  • E

    re. #4

    I looked it up in class, shook his head and said, “I never knew that was a legitimate spelling.”

    >> LOL!

  • mailav

    Excellent post.I want to thank you for this

    informative read, I really appreciate sharing

    this great post. Keep up your work.

  • abby

    “I seen there faces threw the window.”

    You could also get away with “aye” and “thee.” — “Aye seen there faces threw thee window.”

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