Adventures in Reading

An Article: A Word, Please

Dictionaries erudite, but not infallible

Webster’s defines “define” as: “to state the meaning or meanings of (as a word).”

That’s right, dictionaries not only define things, they define what it means to define things. Talk about privilege. Actually, that has always been my dream job — the job of writing my own job description. (Trust me when I tell you it would be very short yet still pack in multiple occurrences of the words “beach” and “Brad Pitt.”)

Not only do dictionaries write their own rules, but as they do, the public never questions their authority. Imagine what our country would look like if all power-holders got that kind of free pass. Crawford, Texas, would be the nation’s capital, and brush-clearing would be declared the basic qualification for a Ph.D.

Many people assume that dictionaries’ rulings are absolute, wise and just. Many also seem to think that dictionaries are infallible. I mean, if you look up the word “flatulence” and read that it is “the ability to write legibly with either hand or either foot,” whose wisdom are you going to question first? Yours? Or the guys who know what that little “vt” and backwards e mean? Chances are you’ll just assume you were wrong all along and end up dropping your new vocabulary word at cocktail parties in a vain attempt to brag about your own ambidextrousness.

We accept dictionaries’ word as gospel and never stop to wonder whether they actually deserve this blind faith.

As a citizen of a country that prides itself on publicly depantsing its leaders, I find this downright un-American. So it is with a surge of self-satisfied patriotism that I report to you that dictionaries are quite fallible.

I learned this recently when I checked two different dictionaries to see whether they had yet reached a consensus on whether “underway” is one word or two. No. They have not.

But I noticed something even more interesting. In the sentence, “Preparations were underway,” “Webster’s New World College Dictionary says “underway” is an adjective. Merriam-Webster Online says this function is actually an adverb.

Remember that adverbs aren’t just those -ly words that describe actions. They also answer the questions where? when? and how? So in the sentence, “Finals were yesterday,” the word “yesterday” is an adverb. Compare that to the sentence, “Finals were hard,” in which “hard” is an adjective.

So does “preparations were . . . ” call for an adverb or an adjective?

My first instinct, of course, was to assume I had lost my mind. I was almost too racked with self-doubt to muster up the courage to ask someone. Happily, I got over it.

I wrote to Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the main guys behind the popular blog. This guy actually co-wrote a grammar book. Not like my books. A good one.

I got straight to the point: “Unless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), ‘Webster’s New World’ and ‘Merriam Webster’ can’t decide whether ‘underway’/‘under way’ can be an adverb. . . . Am I a dink?”

He was gracious enough to reply: “Dictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using ‘underway’ adverbially now.”

“Investigation would be needed.” In other words, the dictionaries don’t know. I hope that this revelation will make at least a tiny dent in our national epidemic of linguistic low self-esteem. I, for one, will keep riding high on Pullum’s most salient comment: “You are not a dink. Whatever that is.”


I just really like the word “adverbhood”, despite my instinctive desire to pronounce it ad-vair-BHOOED.

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