Webster's Third

Subject: Webster's Third
From: Tom Little <LITTLE_TOM_H -at- OFVAX -dot- LANL -dot- GOV>
Date: Thu, 19 Jan 1995 15:19:00 MDT

Alex Johnson writes:

> Webster's Third does suggest that ``infer'' and ``imply'' are
> interchangeable, and it does accept ``hopefully.'' It should. That is how
> the average American speaks, which is what an unabridged dictionary is
> supposed to reflect. To criticize Webster's Third for not prescribing
> ``proper'' speech is to criticize it for something it shouldn't do in the
> first place.

In the abstract, I agree with you. But looking at those two examples, it seems
the dictionary editors are taking a deliberately narrow view of who is "the
average American." I know MANY people for whom "infer" and "imply" mean
different things, and that difference is reflected in MOST written English. For
an unabridged dictionary to ignore a difference in _definition_ that is
frequently, if not universally, observed is a gross offense, it seems to me. I
think a usage note is appropriate for "hopefully". In describing the language,
dictionary editors must themselves make judgments about whether a particular
attested usage is conventional, extraordinary, unintentional, or misinformed.
This inevitably involves assessing the boundaries of slang, jargon, and formal
writing. By deliberately withholding this information on the word's scope of
usage, the dectionary editors do a disservice to the users.

A dictionary that distinguishes formal usage from colloquial usage is not being
proscriptive, unless the distinctions are made by caviat rather than by
research. If research shows that a usage is common in conversation but
scrupulously avoided in professional published writing, that fact is important
information that pertains to the word's meaning; it should be included in a
dictionary.

To single out the uneducated and careless speakers and describe only _their_ use
of language in a dictionary is just as unjustified scientifically as the
reverse, and less justified when one considers that many people use a dictionary
to "educate" themselves about subtleties of meaning.

IMO.

Tom Tadfor Little | "They called me
Technical Writer/Editor | 'the quiet one' because
Los Alamos National Laboratory | I just didn't have anything
little_tom_h -at- ofvax -dot- lanl -dot- gov | to say" -- George Harrison, 1987.


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