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Which dictionaries are prescriptivist/descriptivist?
August 23, 2012 5:54 AM   Subscribe

Is there some super-secret linguistics resource that sorts dictionaries by prescriptivism/descriptivism? Either in a binary chart or along a spectrum? Which dictionaries are known to fit these categories, and which are known to straddle them?
posted by aswego to Education (11 answers total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
"[T]oday virtually all English language dictionaries are descriptive." The closest you'll get to prescriptivism in a modern English dictionary is the occasional notation that words are slang, nonstandard, vulgar, etc.

If you're looking for prescriptivism, you're probably looking more for a usage guide than for a dictionary, but that will focus on a relatively small subset of words and phrases that are commonly misused.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 6:48 AM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


In what language? In English, all dictionaries are descriptive because English has no regulating body i.e. there is no English language equivalent of the Académie française. English dictionaries will occasionally note in definition whether a certain usage is standard, offensive, and so forth, but they are descriptive.

If you want a prescriptive dictionary, you will need a reprint of some old tome such as Webster's.
posted by Tanizaki at 6:49 AM on August 23, 2012


The clue is in blurbs like "language in use", "corpus compiled", "real examples from our database of __ billion words". But as DevilsAdvocate said, almost all dictionaries in English are descriptive. The difficulty with having a prescriptive dictionary is that you'll only sell one to each person, once. You can make a big sales song and dance about modern language usage, and maybe sell folks a new descriptive dictionary every decade or so.
posted by scruss at 7:03 AM on August 23, 2012


A recent essay in The Millions talked about prescriptivism versus descriptivism in the American Heritage Dictionary and Webster's. Not a definitive answer, but it gives you at least some history.
posted by newrambler at 7:20 AM on August 23, 2012 [2 favorites]


That is a ridiculous essay. I mean, it's charmingly written, and I too am a huge fan of the AHD, but the author has idiotic ideas about language and does not understand how dictionaries work: "it was reassuring to know that the makers of my new dictionary are prescriptivists" gives the game away. No, they're not. DevilsAdvocate has it: "If you're looking for prescriptivism, you're probably looking more for a usage guide than for a dictionary, but that will focus on a relatively small subset of words and phrases that are commonly misused." In English, there is no such thing as a prescriptivist dictionary, nor should there be; it's like asking for a Copernican astronomy text.
posted by languagehat at 7:28 AM on August 23, 2012 [5 favorites]


The difficulty with having a prescriptive dictionary is that you'll only sell one to each person, once. You can make a big sales song and dance about modern language usage, and maybe sell folks a new descriptive dictionary every decade or so.

As a lexicographer, let me clarify this point and add to what Language Hat has said. Dictionaries aren't based on corpora or descriptivist principles because such dictionaries sell at a higher volume. They don't sell any better. Otherwise, we would not have seen the jettisoning of dictionary staff at Oxford University Press, American Heritage, and Webster's New World over the last decade.

They are based on corpora and descriptivist principles because that's how dictionaries are made. If reference work is mostly prescriptivist, it is no longer a dictionary. It is a style guide or a usage guide and will be labeled and sold as such.

Now, dictionaries do often have usage panels (experts which give advice on frequently disputed language matters) and do often include usage notes. Those can have elements of prescriptivism. But usually they serve to describe a debate and resolve common confusions (e.g., discrete vs. discreet, succeed vs. secede, procede vs. proceed), and not to demand certain linguistic behavior or to excoriate those who practice certain modes of speech or writing. Prescriptivist usage and style guides *do* often demand and excoriate, even going so far as to call practitioners of certain speech and writing habits fools, idiots, uneducated, lazy, low-class, or contemptible, sometimes in those exact words.

To more fully answer the original question it would be best to reframe it. "What is the spectrum of reliability of the major English dictionaries? Which are more likely to give me advice that won't be questioned by readers, customers, bosses, and professional colleagues?"

To which I'd answer:

It's a very thin range we're talking about here. If the spectrum looks like this:

completely bad--------poor--------okay--------good enough--------good--------perfect

then most mainstream English dictionaries in the US and UK fall between "good enough" and just to the right of "good."

My personal preference based solely on content of the latest editions (it would be a different list if we take into account your job, your willingness to spend, portability, and paper vs. digital):

Oxford English Dictionary
Shorter Oxford English Dictionary*
American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language*
Merriam-Webster's Unabridged
Chambers (various editions)
Merriam-Webster's Collegiate
Cambridge (various editions)
Collins (various editions)
Macmillan (various editions; MED is best)
New Oxford American Dictionary
Webster's New World

The two marked with asterisks are the two I would recommend buying or using online if you are a serious, constant dictionary user. Yes, both. Having one dictionary is like having one eyeball: you miss the depth.

But each has its weaknesses. OED isn't updated fast enough and isn't portable. The Shorter is too big to be portable and is expensive and not American enough. AHD may have a problem getting to the next edition as staff have been cut though the latest edition is very good and should last for a while. MW Collegiate is in desperate need of an overhauled new edition — and I mean overhauled. Merriam-Webster's Unabridged also needs a serious update and overhaul. NOAD was better in the second edition than the third, since the third is basically the New Oxford Dictionary of English — a British domestic dictionary — with a thin layer of Americanization, while the NOAD 2e was an American-made dictionary. Webster's New World is marred by really lame word inclusions that are meant to make the book easier to sell, which shows that the marketing people are unadvisedly making content decisions. Chambers loads its dictionaries with funny or amusing entries that have become so well known that they can't take them out, making the books ossified and old-fashioned. Cambridge, Collins and Macmillan seem to be focusing on ESL/ELL dictionaries that adult native English speakers may find too simplistic.

This is a short answer, really. Dictionaries are complicated. But just rely on this: most dictionaries you have heard of are, in their latest editions, good enough.

Even though I own hundreds of dictionaries myself, my advice is this: spend a half-hour, read the reviews, and just buy two different ones. Yes, two. Then you're done for another ten years when you should do it again.
posted by Mo Nickels at 8:21 AM on August 23, 2012 [7 favorites]


Thanks for the answers so far.

I should probably clarify that I'm not looking to buy a dictionary, but that I was simply hoping for a (historical) survey of (American) English dictionaries. In other words, I'd be just as interested in information about an out-of-print 1890s dictionary as I would be a current one.

And since I get the "we're all prescriptivists now" stance in modern dictionaries, I should probably have framed my question better with respect to that. To the extent that the narrative is true about the differences between Webster's 2nd (1939), Webster's 3rd (1961), and American Heritage (1969), were similar distinctions (whether framed in a descriptive/prescriptive way, or in a traditional/liberal way) being made about other dictionaries before that? Or in dictionaries focused on special topics?
posted by aswego at 8:42 AM on August 23, 2012 [1 favorite]


> I was simply hoping for a (historical) survey of (American) English dictionaries.

Have I got a resource for you! What you want (probably in a library, because it's damn expensive) is The Oxford History of English Lexicography, specifically the chapter on "Major American Dictionaries." I wrote a fairly detailed review that should give you a good idea of it (1, 2).
posted by languagehat at 11:17 AM on August 23, 2012


In that case, the following books will have your answers:

Chasing the Sun: Dictionary-Makers and the Dictionaries They Made by Jonathon Green. 1996. Green is a respected slang lexicographer who does a ample job of keeping this entertaining for the advanced lay reader. He writes a bit long and purpley for my taste but I forgive him. American dictionaries are not the focus but are given some treatment.

Oxford History of English Lexicography, two volumes, edited by A. P. Cowie. 2009. Expensive and academic but exhaustive. Have read chunks of it.

"The Development of American Lexicography, 1798-1864" Janua Linguarum, Series Practica 37. 1967. Have not read it but include it here as a companion to the next journal article.

"American Lexicography, 1945-1973" by Clarence L. Barnhart. American Speech. Vol. 53, No. 2 (Summer, 1978). Top-notch scholar and scholarship.

"Lexicography in America : the history of a status conflict" by Bruce David Scott. 1978. Skimmed it just now and found it to be a passable summary of the debates as they were known in that era, despite its ridiculous use of the term "dictionary war."

The Story of Webster's Third: Philip Gove's Controversial Dictionary and its Critics by Herbert C. Morton. 1995. While on its way to explaining the brouhaha this new dictionary created, the book sufficiently and accurately explains dictionary trends leading up to it, especially since the second unabridged.
posted by Mo Nickels at 11:19 AM on August 23, 2012


Looks like the second to last paper is on a site that uses sessions, so you'll want this link to "Lexicography in America : the history of a status conflict."
posted by Mo Nickels at 1:15 PM on August 23, 2012


> ... They don't sell any better. Otherwise, we would not have seen the jettisoning of dictionary staff ...

Sales and staff shedding aren't related, except that by combining buzzy, flashy dictionaries containing cheesy tricks (thicker paper, all-the-way-through page numbering for a bilingual, etc) AND shedding staff, the reference divisions of publishers can make even more money (or lose money more slowly, depending on the publisher). All my lexicographer friends (I'm ex-Collins dictionaries) are now freelance, and really hurting for work.
posted by scruss at 3:02 PM on August 23, 2012


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