Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Different dictionary approaches to words

By William Donnelly

Two kind of dictionary makers: prescriptive and descriptive.

Prescribers are users of helpful labels telling one what is appropriate in what situations. (Or,more likely, not appropriate.) This is very helpful to foreign speakers and writers.

Descriptive lexicographers work from written excerpts mainly, documenting contexts in which the word has recently occurred in print. And they include words that have a spoken life, too. They avoid judgmental labels. The irdictionaries are helpful with new words, or new meanings for older words.

Since people take the dictionary as authoritative, they are annoyed when they haves een it tabooed for a lifetime and it shows up as a word in the (descriptive) New Merriam Websters International. Say, for example, "disremember." Ear spellings, like "would of" occur in everyone's first drafts, but if we don't catch them, our editors will. So we are talking about talking. Should we waste emotion on "would of" in speech? Among Chinese learners maybe the problem is more like this.

We over-enunciate when we speak slowly. And when we say the particle "a" -- as in "a house", we do not pronounce it schwa (as in the first a sound in "again"), but instead teach our students that it should be pronounced like the "a" sound in "bane." But in real spoken English we never say "a [long a sound] house."Or, we may put the "t"sound in "often" -- which rarely occurs, at least in American speech. A word like "clothes" now pronounced "close" in American English (a pronunciation that is acknowledged by the Oxford Dictionary as coming into British English) is better elided. Have you ever wondered what a Chinese person was talking about when he said "clo-thes" voicing the "th" sound as the beginning of a separate syllable?

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