English Student Resource Guide: Annotated Bibliography of Four General Dictionaries

By Elizabeth A. Jennings
2010, Vol. 2 No. 10 | pg. 1/1

This bibliography will be especially helpful to beginners who wish to begin a comparative study of dictionaries or philosophies of grammar. The information presented about each dictionary is as follows:

  1. Whether the dictionary is descriptive (describing common usage), prescriptive (prescribing accurate usage), or ambivalent.
  2. What aspects of the dictionary support that it is a descriptive, prescriptive, or ambivalent dictionary.
  3. The scope and special features of the dictionary.

The American Heritage College Dictionary. 4th ed. Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2002.

  1. Ambivalent.
  2. Is not consistent in maintaining distinctions between often confused words. Maintains distinctions for these often confused words: alright/all right, disinterested/uninterested, affect/effect, but not for these: anxious/eager, nauseous/nauseated, enormousness/enormity. The usage notes are ambivalent. For example, the usage note for affect is prescriptive: “Affect and effect have no senses in common.” The usage note for anxious is descriptive: “Anxious has a long history of use roughly as a synonym for eager, but many prefer that anxious be used only when its subject is worried or uneasy about the anticipated event.” The usage labels sometimes give clear indication of what is Standard English. The introductory material says of the label nonstandard, “This, the most restrictive label in the dictionary, is applied to forms and usages that educated speakers and writers consider unacceptable.” The AHCD sometimes tells what is correct, but sometimes only tells what is generally accepted. Remarks in the introductory matter indicate that the work is ambivalent. The introductory article explains prescriptively the reason for the large number of usage notes: “there are many more ways of getting a word wrong than of getting it right.” However, it also makes descriptive statements, such as, “What draws us together as speakers of English is not our sameness but our ability to find in our differences the occasion for lively critical discussion.”
  3. Does not state how many entries, but does state that there are 7,500 new words and senses. Emphasizes new words, such as “many new computer and Internet terms along with newly coined words in science, politics, and the arts.” Definitions are arranged by frequency of usage, that is, with the most commonly sought meanings first. Biographical and geographical entries are listed alphabetically with other entries. Includes over 300 usage notes. Other features include the introductory article “Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary” and 2,500 new photographs, drawings, and maps. It also includes biographical entries for currently prominent people, and new statistics from the 2000 census. Contains Word History notes and a unique Appendix of Indo-European Roots.

Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 2001.

  1. Prescriptive.
  2. Does insist on maintaining distinctions between often confused words: anxious/eager, nauseous/nauseated, disinterested/uninterested, alright/all right, flaunt/flout, allusion/illusion. The usage notes are prescriptive. For example, the note for flaunt says, “In terms of openly disobeying or defying a law or convention, only flout is the correct choice.” The note for all right says of all right, “Use instead all right, which has all the meanings, including ‘satisfactory,’ associated with alright.” The usage labels give clear indication of what is Standard English. For example, the usage label for ain’t is nonstandard, a label which is defined in the introductory notes as “not considered part of correct or educated usage, though current in spoken usage.” Remarks in the introductory matter indicate that the work is prescriptive. The introductory article “Usage in Crisis” says, “A good many of the errors highlighted above are not addressed by current dictionaries . . . because dictionary editors are obviously unaware of the severity of the problem. . . . It is our hope that the Usage Notes and other language guidance in the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary . . . will help all North American students meet the expectations of their instructors.”
  3. Contains over 90,000 entries, including 5,000 new entries. Emphasizes high-technology words. Definitions are arranged by usage and frequency. Approximately 10,000 biographical and geographical entries are located alphabetically with other entries. Contains over 600 usage notes. Other features include the introductory articles “Usage in Crisis?” by Anne Soukhanov and “The Internet as a Research Tool” by Andrew Harnack and Gene Kleppinger. Contains 140 “Literary Links” and approximately 70 “Quick Facts” charts. Lists over 700 incorrect spellings that refer the reader to the correct spelling, and has 400 “Spellchecks” at words pronounced alike but spelled differently. Contains several tables, and many small black and white photographs near entries.

The Oxford English Dictionary. 2d ed. 20 vols. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1989.

  1. Descriptive/Historical.
  2. The purpose of this work is historical.
  3. Contains 59,000,000 words and 5,000 new words; contains 290,500 entries and 41,752 new entries. Aim is to record every English word from its first appearance to the present. Definitions are arranged chronologically, and then by usage. Contains a few broad biographic and geographic entries located alphabetically with other entries. Has no usage notes, but has usage labels, including the strongest label: illiterate. Time period covered is from 1150 to present (1989). This second edition has 20 volumes, with 4 supplemental volumes; was originally 12 volumes. Other features include an introductory article “The History of the Oxford English Dictionary,” and a vast number of quotations: 2,412,400 in the twenty volumes, 33,300 of which are from Shakespeare, and 25,000 of which are from the Bible. Longest entry is “set,” with 430 senses. Is most exhaustive English dictionary, and played a key role in preserving English language.

Webster’s Third New International Dictionary. Springfield, MA: G. & C. Merriam, 1961.

  1. Descriptive/Liberal.
  2. Does not insist on maintaining distinctions between often confused words: anxious/eager, nauseous/nauseated, flaunt/flout, disinterested/uninterested, alright/all right, cupfuls/cupsful, deprecate/depreciate. The usage notes are descriptive. For example, the definition of nauseous says, “Affected with or inclined to nausea: nauseated.” The definition of disinterested says, “Lacking or revealing lack of interest . . . uninterested.” Includes misspelled words as standard spellings. For example, the usage note for alright says, “In reputable use although all right is more common.” It only states what is common, not what is correct. Includes mispronunciations as standard pronunciations. The WTNID is very liberal on pronunciation. Its pronunciation note for a second pronunciation of nuclear simply says, “Chiefly used in substandard speech.” In the explanatory notes, substandard is defined as “usage that exists throughout the American language community.” The usage labels do not give clear indication of what is Standard English. The preface tells us that the dictionary “does not attempt to dictate what usage should be.” For example, ain’t is not labeled colloquial, informal, or substandard. The note for ain’t says, “Though disapproved by many and more common in less educated speech, used orally in most parts of the U.S. by many cultivated speakers esp. in the phrase ain’t I.Remarks in the introductory matter indicate that the work is descriptive. Philip Gove writes, “Accuracy in addition to requiring freedom from error and conformity to truth requires a dictionary to state meanings in which words are in fact used, not to give editorial opinion on what their meanings should be.”
  3. Contains over 450,000 words, but does not give the number of entries or new entries. Aim is “nothing less than coverage of the current vocabulary of standard written and spoken English.” Scientific and technical vocabulary has been expanded. Definitions are arranged chronologically, then by most common use. Biographical and geographical entries are omitted. Number of usage notes not stated. Other features include illustrations beside entries, as well as full-page color illustrations. There is also “the incorporation of abbreviations alphabetically in the main vocabulary.” Over 200 consultants worked on the dictionary.

Suggested Reading from Inquiries Journal

Remarks in the introductory material indicate that the philosophy of the work is prescriptive. For example, in the introductory article “On Usage, Purism, and Pedantry,” Follett says, “Skill in expression consists in nothing else than steadily choosing the fittest among all possible words, idioms, and constructions.” In the introductory article “On the Need of Some Grammar,” he states, “What... MORE»
Advertisement
Written language is one of the greatest human accomplishments; its formation signifies a breakthrough in human progress. The development of a standardized writing system seems to be a somewhat natural occurrence in the evolution of any given advanced society. It can be observed that, as a culture or a people grow and expand in other... MORE»
Throughout the American education system, the assessment of writing skill and general academic performance through timed essay examinations has become increasingly pervasive, contributing to the determination of grades and course placements and ultimately affecting college admissions through their use in standardized tests. In March... MORE»
In the opening of J. M. Richards’s post-war account of suburbia, The Castles on the Ground, the author's commentary is unusually sympathetic to a phenomenon that throughout the twentieth-century had either... MORE»
Submit to Inquiries Journal, Get a Decision in 10-Days

Inquiries Journal provides undergraduate and graduate students around the world a platform for the wide dissemination of academic work over a range of core disciplines.

Representing the work of students from hundreds of institutions around the globe, Inquiries Journal's large database of academic articles is completely free. Learn more | Blog | Submit

Follow IJ

Latest in Literature

2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
Bogs are one of Ireland’s most notable and mysterious landscapes. As explored in the work of Seamus Heaney, the bog’s capacity to preserve memory across generations makes it a melancholic terrain that is uniquely suited to explorations... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 2020 No. 1
Time has always been an abstract concept in human languages. To better understand how this temporal concept is addressed in different languages, it can be explored in the context of classical times through Latin texts. In the well-known piece The... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
The fifteenth-century Middle English romance "The Sultan of Babylon" partakes in the Orientalist literary tradition through the poet's linguistic economy of the Other. The paradoxical shortages and surpluses of ethnic descriptors of East female... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 10
This paper presents a comparative analysis of Oedipus at Colonus, a play written by the ancient Greek tragedian Sophocles, and Gran Torino, an American film directed by Clint Eastwood. The two literary productions, although remote as they seem,... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
Sylvia Plath’s posthumously published collection of poetry, Ariel, is perhaps best defined by the vivid imagery that delves deep into Plath’s psyche. Throughout the collection, Plath explores dimensions of herself: her past, present,... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
When finally, … Richard dashes the mirror to the ground, there shatters not only Richard’s past and present, but every aspect of a super-world … The features as reflected by the looking glass betray that he is stripped of &hellip... Read Article »
2020, Vol. 12 No. 09
This paper analyses Ian McEwan’s reuse of Shakespeare’s material in his retelling of Hamlet from the unusual point of view of an unborn child. By considering its plot, characters, setting and main issues, McEwan’s novel Nutshell... Read Article »

What are you looking for?

FROM OUR BLOG

What is the Secret to Success?
Presentation Tips 101 (Video)
"Should I Go to Graduate School?"