Descriptions and Prescriptions
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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