Sunday, September 1, 2013

A trusty dictionary to build a zone of comfort around our word choices

We nonchalantly turn to our English dictionary for guidance when in doubt about our word choices and their meanings, grammatical function, spelling, pronunciation, origins, variants, or idiomatic and stylistic usage. This way, our trusty dictionary builds a comfort zone around our everyday word choices for our spoken and written English. In time, however, we might get a rough shock when told that we had misused, misspelled, or mispronounced a word or had used it to mean the exact opposite of what we wanted to say—like unconsciously using the verb “salvage” in the Philippines to mean “eliminate violently,” which, of course, is poles apart from its regular meaning of “rescue or save especially from wreckage or ruin.” It’s only then that we become aware that the English lexicon or the English dictionaries for particular parts of the English-speaking world could be using different English standards, the most common being American English and British English. And these different English standards happen to be significantly divergent in many aspects of the language—not enough to make us sound like a stranger among our own contemporaries perhaps, but just enough to make us painfully realize that we’ve been using a lexicon or dictionary in the wrong English standard all along.

This is the point of a true-to-life cautionary essay about English dictionaries that I wrote for my English-usage column in The Manila Times way back in 2003. That essay later formed part of my book Give Your English the Winning Edge (Manila Times Publishing, 2009), and this time, I am posting here for the benefit of those intending to buy a new English dictionary or a replacement for one that happens to be in the wrong English Standard. (September 1, 2013)

Looking More Closely at Our Dictionaries

Several years ago, when I was still managing an English-language service, I chided one of my English-language tutors for insisting on using her 1980-vintage Webster’s Desk Dictionary as reference. The day before that, I had the 11th edition of The Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in compact disc loaded on the computers in our office, and had asked my staff to delete from their hard drives all old dictionaries, particularly the British-English ones—the venerable Oxford English Dictionary included. I had also asked my staff to put away all of their print copies of the British-English Longman Dictionary of English Language and Culture and the Collins Cobuild English Dictionary, both of which had long ago been bought inadvertently for our use.

These acts may sound like that of an Anglo-hater gone mad, but I assure you that there was rhyme and reason to them: I wanted to thoroughly bring the small company’s English usage to the American English standard. I was therefore a bit miffed that one of my staff should cavalierly resist the standardization effort, claiming that she was more comfortable using her fading but trusted Webster’s. So, not entirely in jest, I gave her an ultimatum: keep that dictionary out of sight, or I would throw it into the dustbin myself.

My reason for banning British-English dictionaries and outdated American-English dictionaries from our office was dictated not by a sudden anti-British feeling or spite for things old, but by a very pragmatic consideration: the business depended greatly on the consistency of our English grammar, form, and semantics with American English as the standard. We could ill afford even the slightest variation in the spellings, meanings, and usage of the language, in our understanding of its idioms, and in its punctuations, prepositions, and conjunctions.

It had become clear to me that our mixed used of British-English and American-English dictionaries was responsible for not a few of our gaffes—some innocuous, some serious—like spelling the word “center” as “centre,” “check” as “cheque,” and “aluminum” as “aluminium”; thinking of corn” as “grain” instead of “maize”; using the wrong prepositions in sentences like “We live in a quiet street in the city and stay in a farm cottage at weekends” (that’s how the British say and write it, while Americans put it this way: “We live on a quiet street in the city and stay in a farm cottage on weekends”); and worse yet, using the wrong quotation marks and putting commas at the wrong places in quoted material.

A few months back, in particular, when a new editor of ours made a final copyreading pass on a long manuscript, she methodically replaced all of the double quotes with single quotes and took out all of the commas inside them and put them outside the quotes, British-style, like this: ‘This was the title of Paul Zindel’s book, “The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds”, and I thought it rather queer.’ Before that, the sentence used American-English punctuation, like this: “This was the title of Paul Zindel’s book, ‘The Effect of Gamma Rays on Man-in-the-Moon Marigolds,’ and I thought it rather queer.” We were already way past our deadline, so we had to undo her well-meaning but ruinous work in white-hot haste.

Using a dictionary in the wrong English standard could, in fact, not only wreak havoc on our English but trigger needless controversies as well. Once, when a Filipino-Canadian reader of my English-usage column in The Manila Times used the word “miniscule” in a letter that I quoted in that column, the newspaper’s editor in chief told me in good-humored ridicule that I was foisting the wrong spellings of English words on readers. “‘Miniscule’,” he said, “should be spelled ‘minuscule’—with a ‘u’ and not an ‘i’.” When I stood my ground, he opened the Oxford English Dictionary for me and for all of the other editors who were present to see. To my dismay, it confirmed “minuscule” as the official spelling, making only a passing reference to “miniscule” as a variant.

Checking the online Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary later, I discovered that it was even harsher on “miniscule”: “a common spelling of ‘minuscule’ that is not correct.” To my relief, though, the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language accepts the variant without comment, and I also took comfort in my electronic Merriam-Webster’s assurance that while “miniscule” continues to be widely regarded as an error, it now commonly occurs in published writing.

Most of the English dictionaries we had on hand, of course, whether using the American or British English standard, were products of great scholarship, but in that former language business of mine, there was a screaming need for only one English standard and only one English-language authority. We simply had to be scrupulously consistent and current in our English, and it just so happened that in the Philippines and in many parts of Asia, the standard for English is American English. We really had no choice then but to begin to live up to that standard by getting a good, up-to-date American English dictionary—and that, I am happy to say, was precisely what I had done.
From Give Your English the Winning Edge © 2009 by Jose A. Carillo. All rights reserved.

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