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Ask-A-Linguist Message Details
|Subject:||Review of American Dictionaries|
|Question:||I have read many reviews of American dictionaries by non-experts, but do you know of any by experts? I am trying to answer the question: are all American dictionaries equally good, or do professional linguists consider one of them to be the best? In other words, does it really matter which dictionary you use? (I am an editor, and dictionaries are crucial for settling editing wars.)|
|Reply:||It matters a lot, I'm sorry to say. As a professional linguist, I avoid recommending any general English dictionaries published in the U.S.A, with the exception of the American Heritage Dictionary. This is because of its etymologies, and the AHD usage handbook, both of which are the best in the business. For editing purposes, that usage handbook is probably your best choice, and the dictionary that goes with it is good enough for print work. Punctuation is another matter, of course; there simply are no standards there. But no doubt there is a house style sheet. The reason I avoid American dictionaries in general is because they don't provide accurate pronunciation guides in standard IPA for dictionary entries (as the OED and other dictionaries published elsewhere always do). Rather, they use idiosyncratic and extremely confusing collections of spelling letters differenced by italics, breves, macrons, and other odd marks, which nobody ever understands, or even looks at. Merriam-Webster does publish Kenyon & Knott's 1954 Pronouncing Dictionary of American English, which gives pronunciations in English IPA phonemes (but no meanings); however, they refuse to use its transcriptions in their other books, preferring their 18th-century traditional marks. Dictionary editors and publishers I have talked to tell me (though not in so many words) that they believe the American public is too ignorant to handle IPA, and wouldn't buy their dictionaries if anything looked "strange". They have a point. But they are in the business of providing correct and authoritative information, after all, and they're falling down on it. I consider this simple incompetence.|
|Reply From:||John M. Lawler click here to access email|