Are you confident in your knowledge of English? Pretty certain about what’s right and what’s wrong? Here’s a cautionary tale…

A friend was chatting in an online group designed to help language learners practise their skills. She kindly pointed out to an Italian chap that something he’d written ‘wasn’t a word in English’. Straight away, he sent her a dictionary entry showing its usage and definition.

Now this was pretty embarrassing – to be told that you’re wrong about your own language by a non-native speaker. She wrote to me to ask whether she was going mad; she’d never heard of that word (which was nothing obscure – just an unusual construction), but there it was – actually in the dictionary! My friend wondered if she’d effectively been living under a stone her whole life.

Well, no, she wasn’t going mad. I had never come across the word either, but I could easily see what it meant.

The word itself isn’t that important here. But it raises an interesting question: is ‘the dictionary’ always right?

What’s a dictionary for?

There are two distinct purposes to a dictionary, and they’ve been at odds with one another since the first one was published (by Robert Cawdrey in 1604).

One aim is to determine how language ‘should’ be used – to set a standard. This is the ‘prescriptive’ approach, and is the way many of us have been taught to treat dictionaries – as a fount of knowledge, and an arbiter in disputes: ‘If it’s in the dictionary, it must be right.’

The other approach is ‘descriptive’ – to capture our language as it actually is used, without judgement. And our Italian friend wrote a word that clearly is used by plenty of people – which is why it had made its way into many dictionaries.

But not all.

Are all dictionaries the same?

Dictionary editors can choose how much information to give about a word (eg, its history, its derivatives or examples of it in use). But they can also choose whether to include a word… or not.

Some dictionaries make a distinction between words that are in standard usage and words that are still considered to be slang or incorrect. Other dictionaries just record a word and its common meaning(s) without commenting on its correctness.

The word in question was indeed in several dictionaries online. But not in the one I have on my bookshelf, or its online version. All this means is that the current editors haven’t updated the book yet – they may be giving it more thought, or seeking broader evidence. It doesn’t mean that word is wrong.

But if a word doesn’t appear in every dictionary, that means it may not be acceptable everywhere, and it should be used with caution.

I liked the word. But if I had seen it in my proofreading capacity, I would probably have changed it. However, it’s my job to keep on top of our evolving language, and I shall keep a sharp lookout for this word becoming more mainstream.

So… what was the word?

The word was ‘unuseful’. You will have your opinions, and I’d love to hear them. And I can feel another blog post coming on…

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Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing better than grappling with the nitty gritty of our language. She takes the description ‘pernickety’ as a compliment.