Descriptions and Prescriptions

By Mark Nichol

Question: How many dictionaries does it take to screw up the word lightbulb? Answer: How many you got?

I’m mildly irritated whenever I see lightbulb styled as two words in an article or a book. (I can’t help it. I’m a word nerd.) That happens all the time, because it’s rarely styled correctly — and when I spell-checked this post, lightbulb was flagged as a misspelling.

If that’s true, then why doesn’t the dictionary style it as two words? As it turns out, many of them do — and correctly is a relative judgment. My favorite dictionary, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, — widely favored by American book and magazine publishers, thus marking me as a man of taste and refinement — is nearly anomalous in treating the word as a closed compound. And why is that?

Dictionaries, like sensible writers and editors, try to straddle the descriptivist and prescriptivist worlds. (A descriptivist describes things as they are; a prescriptivist prescribes how things should be.) They’ll acknowledge, for example, that alright is a frequently appearing variant of “all right.”

But they don’t advocate favoring it over the dominant form – or employing it, for that matter. They merely admit that it exists, for better or worse. And though rampaging hordes of feckless philistines spell “a lot” as one word, affirm an opinion by writing definately, or refer to someone else’s opinion as rediculous, you won’t find any of those aberrations in a dictionary. They have not acquired even quasi-validity — not yet, anyway (shudder).

But how is it that one dictionary can authoritatively display a closed compound as standard, when most others — and most usage — contradicts it? Compound nouns tend to follow a progression in which they begin as open compounds and progress to hyphenated form and are then closed. (Sometimes, the progression skips the middle step.)

The precursor of the incandescent lightbulb was developed 200 years ago, and Merriam-Webster’s cites the first appearance in print of the closed compound in 1884. I prefer to think that this particular dictionary happens to be ahead of the curve in granting the closed compound pride of place as the correct form (without even a nod to the open alternative as a variant).

But our mischievous mother tongue requires eternal vigilance. Lightbulb may be the correct form if you consider Merriam-Webster’s your lexicographical authority. But the hyphen stubbornly persists in light-year despite that word’s first attestation about the same time as lightbulb was switched on. (“Light year” implies an annum nearly devoid of gravity, perhaps, and was passed over from the beginning, while lightyear looks as if it should be pronounced “lighty ear” — the same affliction that presents in copyediting, which inexplicably became favored over “copy editing.”)

Meanwhile, “light box,” which has been around nearly as long — it refers to a platform with an interior light source and a clear surface that allows objects placed on it to be illuminated from below — still awaits the bestowal-of-the-hyphen ceremony or automatic promotion to closed compound (and perhaps waits in vain).

And then there’s the confusion of referring to someone as light-headed yet lighthearted, and of distinguishing between lightening your load and a lightning strike. Such bewildering inconsistency creates a challenge for the careful writer, but it’s to be expected from such a loose language as English.

The tip: Choose a dictionary (one preferred, perhaps, by whoever pays you for the honor of publishing your writing), and stray not — and don’t sweat it when an otherwise enjoyable piece of someone else’s writing displays adherence to another dictionary’s dogma.

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9 Responses to “Descriptions and Prescriptions”

  • Joan

    Mark,

    I so enjoy your posts. I laughed out loud at “And though rampaging hordes of feckless philistines spell “a lot” as one word, …”

    I was corrected in college by my then academic advisee that I, too, had spelled a lot as one word. I never forgot it, and now hound my own “hordes of feckless philistines” in my classes whenever this comes up. (He became a college professor of English, and I, merely, a high school English teacher. Hmmm.)

    Thanks for enlightening fellow word nerds!

  • Donna M.

    As a fellow word nerd, and grammar nazi, I often want to scream at certain phrases heard, or sentences written. Thank you for reminding me that language flows. *Deep breath.* I can deal with other points of view. (Maybe.)

  • Lindsay

    I tend to write the word-backdoor, frontdoor, lightbulb etc as I know them. After all in most houses there is only 1 backdoor and 1 frontdoor. Right.
    Whereas, there will be multiple lightbulbs in a house but I still think of it as one word.
    When I get edits back and I see any of the above or other compound words seperated I tend to take the chickens way out and go with how the edits wants the word spelled.
    I sometimes wonder if it’s also a regional way spelling the word and also when the editor attended school.

  • Patrick Milroy

    Dear Mark Nichol,

    For correct English, the full version of the OED is the only dictionary that counts. Anything else is perverse, except of course for dictionaries of regionalisms such as Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

    Kind regards,
    Patrick Milroy

  • Suzanne

    I worked for a lighting fixture company for about 18 years. No one in lighting refers to “lightbulbs.” They are always called “lamps.”

    Those things that sit on your end table or desk that illuminate? They’re called “portables.”

  • Sally

    Surely, Mark, one speaks of “light-E-ning one’s load,” but calls it a “LIGHT-ning strike”?

    Careful pronunciation leads to proper spelling in this case.

  • thebluebird11

    @Sally: When I said “lightening” and “lightning” out loud, they came out sounding the same, pretty much. I don’t know that “lightening” has 3 syllables. Just as I would tell Rihanna that “umbrella” is only 3 syllables, and I would tell Taylor Swift that “eyes” has only one.
    @Mark and Joan: I too LOL’d @ the feckless philistine reference.
    @Lindsay: I (personally) would refer to the front door of the house and the back door of the house. I would hyphenate it if I were using it as an adjective (back-door man, front-door mail slot). However, that would be in my personal writing. If I were writing professionally and my editor called me on these, I would be forced to follow whatever bible they chose.
    @Mark: Yes, copyeditor looks like “cop-yeditor,” just as the closed “coworker” to me looks like “cow-orker.” I tend to try to imagine how people will see certain words as they’re reading; if I think that something will cause them to double back in confusion, even if it’s just a matter of their eyes flicking back for a nanosecond to make sure they read the word correctly, I try to eliminate that issue. What I have also learned, in lo, my many years on this planet, is that most people don’t read very well; they skim a lot, they read what they THINK should be there, what they EXPECT to be there or what they WANT to be there, but not what is actually there. So let’s not contribute to confusing them any more than they already are LOL.

    I always have problems with “high school.” I don’t really like the way it looks as a closed compound (highschool) because of all those consonants in a row, but I don’t like it open either, especially since the word “high,” by itself, is pronounced somewhat differently from how it’s pronounced when it’s linked to the word “school.” Still, a hyphen seems to be overdoing it. And I’ve seen it all 3 ways. What is the consensus here about this?

  • shirley in berkeley

    Of course, one has a living room, a dining room, and a bedroom, anywhere and everywhere, but I went to high school, if for no other reason than to avoid that irritating red line under highschool when I’m writing.

  • Stephen Thorn

    This post reminds me of a line from the movie “Jaws”: Front, bow; back, stern; you don’t get it right, Squirt, I blow your out the little round window in the side!”

    Yes, our wonderful languange is tremendously flexible and always changing (although not always for the better, sad to say). Hopefully future generations of writers will continue to carry the torch of accurate and proper usage for many years to come, instead of knuckling-under to those feckless Philistines who revel in their addled linguistics as though ignorance were a badge of honor.

    I was always taught “lightbulb” was a compound word because there are other kinds of lights (candlelight, gaslight, etc.) and other kinds of bulbs (some plants grow from bulbs) so the compounds (lightbulb, flashbulb) specified usage to a particular object. But what do I know — some folks consider me a dimbulb. (chuckles)

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