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Subject:Re: Best dictionary? -Reply From:Tim Altom <taltom -at- IQUEST -dot- NET> Date:Sat, 6 Jan 1996 08:23:00 EST
>To Tom Kiersted and anyone else who cares. My method for dictionary
>evaluation is to compile some sort of a list of words that I would
>either want the dictionary to define (terabyte might be one) or would
>expect the dictionary to clearly explain (like maybe the difference
>between access and excess or what to think about comprise and
>comprised of). Then I would go to the store and look up these words
>in the books for sale. If I like what I see, I buy.
>For tech dictionaries I might expand my search to the book offerings
>of the professional society for the discipline of my engineers. For
>computer dictionaries, it's the discount shops. You might posibly
>borrow or visit a tech dictionary from your local public or
>university library, if that's convenient.
>PS: Don't give up on finding a hard cover dictionary (especially the
>standard English type) without looking for sales and checking the
I take another approach, perhaps because my aptitude, degree, perspective
and the way I make my living are all in the use of English. I always have at
least four or five different general dictionaries, not counting technical
dictionaries of engineering, IS, technology, and so forth. I even have a
dictionary of sorts just for tech comm. I also have around a dozen "use of
the language" books from Fowler, the Morris's and others. And THAT'S not to
count the various stylebooks from St. Martin's, Chicago, A.P. and other places.
The problem is that, for me as a right-serious wordsmith, language usage is
opinion rather than established natural law, so I use these sources not as
authoritative, but as advisory. One dictionary will list one of my pet
peeves (insure vs. ensure) as being "functionally synonymous." Right. Blech.
But maybe I'm being an old fogy. So I check another dictionary. Different
opinion, no mention of them being synonyms. Who's right? I am. I choose,
based on my understandings, bias and whether or not I've had morning coffee.
But sometimes the choice is harder, and more meaningful, because we're
setting up a style sheet. That's when I take recourse to Fowler, Morris, et
al. to see how others are doing it, and so we can defend ourselves against
the barbarians who would question us. It's powerful stuff, BTW, for backing
up your linguistic contentions when technonerds want to get saucy about word
choice. "Well, Fowler, of course, takes this view, while the Morris advisory
team is about evenly split. The Dictionary of Modern American Usage, on the
other hand..." Then they usually shut up.
If all you're looking for a rough indication of whether or not you know how
to spell or use a given word, just about any paperback will do the job. I
personally prefer the American Heritage for a quick-and-dirty lookup, just
because it tends to be updated often in line with American usage.