When is a dictionary like a usage manual?

Well, depending on the dictionary, the answer could be “sometimes.” However, I’m getting ahead of myself. Someone asked me how Garner’s Modern American Usage compared to the OED. Honestly? That’s apples and oranges. And if you add stylebooks to the set, it’s apples and oranges and bananas.

I know you know what a dictionary’s for. That’s where you look up spellings, definitions of words, parts of speech, and sometimes — but only sometimes, depending on which dictionary you have — usage tips. If you’re a really bad speller, a “normal” dictionary might be next to useless. You’ll want a misspeller’s dictionary instead. If you’re a person who often can think of the concept of a word, but not the word, perhaps a reverse dictionary would work better for you. Here are five dictionaries I keep on my reference shelf, right here where I write and edit. I use the Encarta the most, but truthfully, I more often than not look online at the Merriam-Webster site. The Chicago style references M-W, so that’s where I go for “business.” I love my Encarta, though, for “pleasure browsing.” It contains a lot of usage information, but not as much as a dedicated usage manual.

Next, I have two usage manuals. As the name would suggest, they’re dedicated to English-language usage. Not to spelling, or definitions, or how the words should appear on the page, but to how words are (or should be, or should not be) used. The paperback M-W I’ve had for years and years. The copy of Garner I just got a couple of weeks ago. I’m very, very happy with the latter most of all because of the “five stages of acceptance,” as I’ve taken to calling them. I wrote about those over on G+ not long after I got the book, in a post about the shift in meaning of the word “nimrod” from “mighty hunter” (the Biblical Nimrod) to “fool, idiot” (thank you, Bugs Bunny). That shift epitomizes Garner’s “stage 5”: “universally adopted except by a few eccentrics.” Once a change reaches stage 5, the ship has sailed. The train has left the station. Give it up; there’s no going back. I find Garner’s book most useful for identifying when it’s still worth fighting to retain a usage, or when it’s best to just let it go and grumble to myself.

I grumble a lot.

Then we have stylebooks. These are unlike either dictionaries or usage manuals. The main thrust of any stylebook is to engender consistency in presentation. Nearly all journalistic media uses the AP stylebook. That’s why for the most part when you’re reading a news item, it looks pretty much like every other news item out there as far as actual appearance. The title is capitalized a certain way. There’s a dateline, and the date is styled a certain way. Times are presented in a certain way. You get the drift, I think. You don’t use a stylebook to look up a definition of a word. You use a stylebook to see how a word should be presented (styled) in your work, to conform to that style. For example:

mecca Lowercase in the metaphorical sense; capitalize the city in Saudi Arabia.” (Associated Press Stylebook and Briefing on Media Law 2012)

If you don’t know what “mecca” means as a metaphor, this won’t tell you. You need a dictionary for that. However, now you know that if you use this metaphorically, you don’t capitalize it. That’s a style issue. In the AP stylebook, this particular word is found right where you’d expect it: under the letter M, just like in a dictionary. In the Chicago Manual of Style, though, you won’t find “mecca” listed in that way. CMoS is positively labyrinthine compared to AP. They have different focuses, different audiences. I learned Chicago style long before AP, and I still have to look up some things to make sure I’m not mixing them.

I bought a copy of the New Oxford Style Manual so I would have a reference handy when I’m copy editing UK writers’ work. Not that it seems to matter much, honestly. I asked a number of them online if they used the term “full point” (which NOSM says is the preferred term, now) or “full stop.” No one had even heard of “full point.” The schools are still teaching “full stop.” Take THAT, NOSM. I won’t even go into the issues with quotation marks, save to say everything I thought I knew turned out to be wrong. Mostly. Apparently in the fiction market, dialogue is set the same way as it is in the US: double quotes for direct quotations, single quotes for quotes-within-quotes. BUT, in the nonfiction market, that is reversed — that is to say, it’s the way I expected, with direct quotes set in single quotation marks, and double ones used for quotes-within-quotes.

NOSM doesn’t reflect that, though, which I find interesting in the extreme.

So, right. I can’t compare a usage manual to a dictionary to a stylebook. They’re different books with different purposes. Dictionaries have some elements of usage manuals; usage manuals have some elements of dictionaries; stylebooks might contain abridged dictionaries (the NOSM contains the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors), and often contain brief notes about usage. But, all in all, one cannot replace another.

Musings for Grammar Day 2014

Time was, I taught middle-school English. (Except we called it “language arts” back then.) I drilled my students in the precision of grammar, in the parts of speech, in proper sentence construction, in the fine points of mechanics (where does that question mark go with those quotation marks, anyway?). I did very well with it, too, until we got to prepositions.

I couldn’t for the life of me get the concept of prepositions through their heads. I hadn’t yet learned the trick of “if you can do it to a box, it’s a preposition.” (In the box. On the box. Near the box. Inside the box. Between the boxes. And so on. Except of course that leaves out “for” and “of” because you don’t “do” that “to a box.” You don’t really “do” any of those things “to” a box, come to think of it. But I digress . . .) So, I abandoned grammar and quickly drew up lesson plans about Greek and Roman theatre, so they could unwind by making papier mache masks and cardboard sets.

We never did get back to the prepositions.

Since then, I’ve worked as a technical editor at two companies, as a retail associate and an assistant manager in a women’s specialty shop, as a creative director at what was then the premier role-playing company in the country, as a CNA on a locked Alzheimer’s ward, as a parts inspector, as a shipping clerk, as an assembler in an electronics plant, as a substitute teacher, and as a freelance copy editor. It always was going to come back to editing. Editing is very close to teaching, you see, except you’re working with one student on one project. Even when you have multiple concurrent projects, you’re still working one-on-one with the writers. It’s like tutoring, in that way.

I’ve continued learning as well. I have multiple dictionaries, multiple stylebooks, several usage guides (different from a stylebook, you know), and I read a number of language- and grammar-related blogs. (Not daily, but when I have a moment and want to unwind, or feel the need for some edification or validation. You can find them on the Blog Roll on the home page here.) I’ve gone from being a pretty strict prescriptivist (don’t you dare end a sentence with a preposition in your writing!) to what I term a “pragmatist.” (If you’re writing an informal piece, go right ahead and end that sentence with a preposition. If you’re writing a white paper, you’ll probably want to recast that sentence to avoid it, though; that requires the most formal usage, and you’d do well not to say things like “This was the part of the experiment the mice got the most tired of.”)

What about those split infinitives? Garner devotes a little more than one page to them in the latest edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage. “(S)plit infinitives where they feel natural” is categorized as a Stage 5 shift (“universally adopted except by a few eccentrics”). I could go on, but this post isn’t about split infinitives or Garner; it’s about ME. Split ye infinitives where ye may. ::cough::

And you can start a sentence with a conjunction, too. Sometimes it just makes sense to lead with one. Not always, but sometimes. You can even write in fragments, when you’re writing something informal like a blog post. Even a grammar blog post.

I recently learned the term “dog-whistle editing” from a post over at Copyediting.com. That’s when someone (like I used to be) fixes things that no one but another copy editor is likely to notice, and that don’t really matter except to the most discerning readers. Depending on the requirements of the audience, it might be all right to let some things slide. I’ve always said “Let the audience determine the language” (or words to that effect), meaning “write (and edit) for your audience.” If less formal usage is all right for the purpose, then less stringent copy editing will be all right, too. If the work requires the most formal level of usage, then the editing had better be at the upper level of precision. (And “alright” will never, ever be all right. Just letting you know that.)

Here’s a link, if you want to see for yourselves.

http://www.copyediting.com/should-you-be-dog-whistle-copyeditor

That blog post delineates what I’ve known for quite a while already. Seeing it in print is very gratifying, indeed. I know now that I’m not alone in thinking that I can—no, I should tailor my editing to the job, based on the material and the intended audience.

And I can still keep my own sanity by insisting on maintaining the difference between “convince” and “persuade.” It’s a win-win.