Prescriptivists vs. Descriptivists: The Fifth Edition of The American Heritage Dictionary

July 19, 2012 | 4 books mentioned 22 10 min read

My dictionary lives on the floor beside my desk — out of the way yet easy to reach when I need to consult it, which is something I do upwards of a dozen times a day. It’s the first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, a Christmas present from my father way back in 1974. After nearly four decades of service, the old warhorse is literally coming apart, its spine broken, its red cover crumbling, its pages yellowing at the edges and breaking free.

Why such loyalty to a book? Part of the answer is that, like most writers, I’m a creature of iron habit. Familiarity and routine tend to breed contentment rather than contempt. But mere familiarity would not be enough to make a writer stick with a tool as crucial as a dictionary. Much more important are what I consider the American Heritage’s three timeless virtues: its illustrations, its etymologies and, above all, its Usage Panel.

The illustrations in the first edition are black-and-white drawings, photographs, charts and maps, beautifully arrayed in the wide margins, a radical innovation in its day. The etymologies are concise, never fussy, frequently fascinating. (People who continue to consult unwieldy print dictionaries in our digital age, for instance, are distant descendants of Ned Lud(d), a late 18th-century English worker who destroyed textile machinery out of fear that this new technology would displace him and his fellow workmen.)

But the Usage Panel is what makes the American Heritage Dictionary unique and, for me, indispensable. For the first edition, the panel consisted of about 100 people, mostly professional writers and editors, mostly white, mostly male, with an average age of 68. They included Isaac Asimov, William F. Buckley Jr., John Ciardi, Malcolm Cowley, Langston Hughes, and Wallace Stegner; the women, outnumbered but not outgunned, included Pauline Kael, Margaret Mead, Marianne Moore, Katherine Anne Porter, and Gloria Steinem.

Their task, in a nod to the fact that language is a fluid and slippery substance, was to vote on the proper and improper usages of given words. The editors then tallied the ballots and used them as the basis for recommendations contained in several hundred Usage Notes. The notes make for enriching reading. Here, for instance, is the Usage Note on disinterested:

Disinterested differs from uninterested to the degree that lack of self-iinterest differs from lack of any interest. Disinterested is synonymous with impartial, unbiased.  Uninterested has the sense of indifferent, not interested. According to 93 percent of the Usage Panel, disinterested is not acceptable in the sense of uninterested, though it is often thus employed.

The last sentence is telling: the Usage Panel was almost unanimous in its verdict, even though many people use the word incorrectly. In other words, as the makers of The American Heritage Dictionary see it, popular usage does not determine correctness; the consensus of knowledgeable people determines correctness.

The editor of the first edition, William Morris (no kin to me), made it clear in his introduction that the democratic methods of the Usage Panel should not be equated with a disdain for rules or an unwillingness to make value judgments. Unanimity of opinion was not the goal, and it was achieved just once — when 100 percent of the panel rejected simultaneous as an adverb. The dictionary debuted in 1969 and was a direct rebuke to the far more freewheeling Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, which had appeared in 1961. In a sense, the AHD was a line in the sand between prescriptivists like Morris, who insist that one of a dictionary’s primary functions is to make informed distinctions between correct and incorrect uses of words, and descriptivists like Webster III’s makers, who contend that a dictionary’s function is merely to chronicle current practices. Here is Morris’s description of the prescriptivist goal for The American Heritage Dictionary: “It would faithfully record our language, the duty of any lexicographer, but would not, like so many others in these permissive times, rest there. On the contrary, it would add the essential dimension of guidance, that sensible guidance toward grace and precision, which intelligent people seek in a dictionary.” A good dictionary, he added, ought to be “a treasury of information about every aspect of words” and “an agreeable companion.”

After nearly four decades of poring over my first edition of The American Heritage Dictionary — it’s a book that invites you to read it rather than just refer to it — I can report that it has been a most agreeable companion.

coverMaybe the reason that old dictionary and I got along so well for so long was because the man who gave it to me was a Usage Panel in his own right. My father was a newspaper reporter at The Washington Post when I was born, a gifted rewrite man who got nominated for a Pulitzer Prize along with Al Lewis, the cop reporter who would break the story of the Watergate break-in some 20 years later. In addition to being punctilious about grammar, usage, spelling, and style, my father was a lightning-fast typist. Ben Bradlee, a fellow Post reporter who went on to fame as the paper’s editor, wrote in his 1995 memoir, A Good Life, that “Dick Morris was the fastest typist in the newsroom.” To which my father, a proud man, sniffed, “I like to think I was the fastest writer in the newsroom.”

coverHe had every right to be miffed. He was a fine writer and a fine editor, owner of a vast and ever-expanding vocabulary. Not once in his 86 years did I see him stumped when asked to define or spell a word. He was a big fan of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, and he shared their belief that a person’s style of speaking and writing is an accurate barometer of that person’s intelligence and worth. As E.B. White put it, “Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition. This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style.”

My father shared Flaubert’s belief that there is a right word for every situation, there are a great many wrong ones, and sometimes there is one perfect word. I can still remember the night in high school when I finished typing up a 17-page paper on my latest passion, Albert Camus. It was due the next morning, and I took it downstairs to present it to my father, terribly proud of myself. He read the opening sentence and immediately reached for the Cross pen in his shirt pocket. I looked on, aghast, as he circled a word in ink. He read the sentence aloud: “Before his premature death in a car crash in 1960 at the age of 46, Albert Camus had cemented his reputation as one of the most influential writers of the 20th century.”  Then my father said, “The word premature usually refers to a birth that takes place before the baby is ready. Untimely is the word you want if you’re referring to a man’s death at a relatively early age. Or possibly inopportune.” He continued to carve up my paper with ink marks, then sent me back upstairs to rework it. I spent most of the night editing and retyping the mess. Of course I got an A+ for the paper. Far more important, I’ve never forgotten the difference between premature and untimely.

My father’s insistence on precision and Strunk and White’s emphasis on the importance of style are not the same as advocating slavish adherence to rules. Quite the opposite. While The Elements of Style contains many rules, in the end the thing that matters most to its authors is a writer’s “ear,” the ability to distinguish writing that sounds right from writing that sounds wrong. For this reason, many writers (the great Elmore Leonard among them) always read their stuff out loud to find out how it sounds. If it sounds awkward or clunky, it gets rewritten because good writing is music made of ink. To this end, the wise writer knows that rules are there for bending, or ignoring. Splitting infinitives, using the passive voice, stringing together adjectives, pairing none with a plural verb, starting a sentence with a conjunction, ending a sentence with a preposition — those things are all against the rules, yet they’re in every good writer’s tool kit. The issue is knowing when and how to use them to make the writing sound right. The issue, in a word, is style.


Those words, which my father and Strunk and White would have endorsed, appear on a refrigerator magnet that came with my copy of the new fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary. There is also an app (a $24.99 value) that allows one free download of the entire dictionary onto an iPad, iPhone, iPod, or Android. Alas, this Luddite doesn’t own any of these devices, but it was reassuring to know that the makers of my new dictionary are prescriptivists, not technophobes.

The book itself is a thing of beauty: 2,084 pages between sturdy cream-colored covers, weighing nearly eight pounds (up from a little over five pounds for the first edition). The illustrations in the fifth edition are in color, and the word entries are in blue ink, which was jarring at first but quickly became pleasing to the eye. The new edition, like the first, contains an extensive appendix of Indo-European Roots, a sort of pre-history of English words. The Usage Notes have been expanded, and they’re augmented by lists of Synonyms, notes on Our Living Language, and Word Histories, which are breezy, informative essays about how select words evolved. Here’s a sample Word History:

The word outlaw brings to mind the cattle rustlers and gunslingers of the Wild West, but it comes from a much earlier time, when guns were not yet invented but cattle stealing was. Outlaw can be traced back to the old Norse word utlagr, “outlawed, banished,” made up of ut, “out,” and log, “law.” An utlagi (derived from utlagr) was someone outside the protection of the law. The Scandinavians, who invaded and settled in England during the 8th through 11th century, gave us the Old English word utlaga, which designated someone who because of criminal acts had to give up his property to the crown and could be killed without recrimination. The legal status of the outlaw became less severe over the course of the Middle Ages. However, the looser use of the word to designate criminals in general, which arose in Middle English, lives on in tales of the Wild West.

And here’s a note on Our Living Language:

Gung ho is one of many words that entered the English language as a result of World War II. It comes from Mandarin Chinese gonghe, the slogan of the gongye hezuoshe, the Chinese Industrial Cooperative Society. (The gong in gonghe means “work,” while he means “combine, join.”) Marine Lieutenant Colonel Evans F. Carlson (1896-1947) heard the expression and thought it was well-suited to the spirit he was trying to foster among his Marines, the famous “Carlson’s Raiders.” Carlson began to use it as a moniker for meetings in which problems were discussed and worked out, and his Marines began calling themselves the “Gung Ho Battalion.” Gung ho soon began to be used to describe any person who shows eagerness, as it still is today. Other words and expressions that entered the English language during World War II include flak, gizmo, task force, black market and hit the sack.

For the fifth edition, the Usage Panel was doubled in size and made more inclusive in terms of gender, race, ethnicity, and specialty. In addition to writers and editors, the panel included scientists, scholars, linguists, translators, cartoonists, film directors, even a former U.S. senator and a Supreme Court justice. My guess is that the average age of the panelists is now closer to 48 than 68. The writers included Margaret Atwood, Harold Bloom, Roy Blount Jr., Junot Diaz, Joan Didion, Rita Dove, Frances FitzGerald, Jonathan Franzen, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Oscar Hijuelos, Jamaica Kincaid, Maxine Hong Kingston, Cynthia Ozick, Ann Patchett, John Sayles, David SedarisWilliam T. Vollmann, and John Edgar Wideman. Among the panelists who died during the decade the dictionary was being put together were Molly Ivins, Leonard Michaels, and David Foster Wallace.

The fifth edition contains 10,000 new words that were not in the fourth (published in 2000), which contained 10,000 new words that were not in the third (published in 1992). Among the new entries are asshat (vulgar slang for a contemptible or detestable person), filk (a genre of music popular among devotees of science fiction and fantasy literature), and ollie (a skateboard maneuver). I knew what an ollie was, but I was delighted to learn its etymology: it’s the nickname of Alan Gelfand (born 1963), the American skateboarder who developed the trick.

For all its many virtues, the fifth edition is not perfect. Its one glaring flaw is an introductory essay written by the chairman of the Usage Panel, Steven Pinker, a Harvard University linguist and cognitive scientist who is also an avowed descriptivist. In “Usage in The American Heritage Dictionary,” Pinker writes, “(W)hen many speakers misuse a word on many occasions in the same way — like credible for credulous, enervate for excite, or protagonist for proponent — who’s to say they’re wrong? When enough people misuse a word, it becomes perverse to insist that they’re misusing it at all.”

What’s that whirring noise I hear? Is it William Morris, who died in 1994, spinning in his grave? Pinker’s argument is the very sort of “permissive” thinking Morris so vigorously decried in his introduction to the first edition. It’s also the reason we get presidents like George W. Bush, who uttered gobbledygook like misunderestimate and said vulcanize when he meant Balkanize.

After his descriptivist, usage-determines-correctness salvo, Pinker goes on to disparage something he calls “the paradox of false consensus.” (For some reason he calls this paradox bubba meises, which is Yiddish for “grandmother’s tales,” when the English expression “old wives’ tales” would have done the job.) The most notorious bubbe meise, Pinker claims, is the prohibition against split infinitives, which, as we have seen, is an old rule that skilled writers feel free to flout whenever it suits their needs. But Pinker sees something nefarious, even dangerous, in such rules. He writes:

How do ludicrous fetishes like the prohibition of split verbs become entrenched? For a false consensus to take root against people’s better judgment it needs the additional push of enforcement. People not only avow a dubious belief that they think everyone else avows, but they punish those who fail to avow it, largely out of the belief — also false — that everyone else wants it enforced. False conformity and false enforcement can magnify each other, creating a vicious circle that entraps a community into a practice that few of its members would accept on their own…The same cycle of false enforcement could entrench a linguistic bubba meise as a bogus rule of usage. It begins when a self-anointed expert elevates one of his peeves or cockamamie theories into an authoritative pronouncement that some usage is incorrect, or better still, ignorant, barbaric, and vulgar.

Insecure writers are intimidated into avoiding the usage. They add momentum to the false consensus by derogating those who don’t keep the faith, much like the crowds who denounced witches, class enemies and communists out of fear that they would be denounced first.

I’m still having trouble believing that such lame logic and tawdry sensationalism — beware the witch hunt! watch out for Red-baiters! — were allowed between the covers of this otherwise wonderful book. I can only guess that the editors were hoping that by including Pinker’s gibberish they would defuse charges of elitism. If so, they’ve shown poor judgment and a surprising lack of respect for this dictionary’s rich history, high standards and unapologetically prescriptivist leanings.

So go ahead and call me Cotton Mather or Joe McCarthy or, worse, an elitist. But I’m going to keep following the guidance of Ann Patchett, Cynthia Ozick, David Foster Wallace and their hundreds of elite colleagues who contributed to this new incarnation of The American Heritage Dictionary. It’s one of the most agreeable companions any lover of the English language could hope to have.

Images courtesy of the author.

is a staff writer for The Millions. He is the author of the novels Motor City Burning, All Souls’ Day, and Motor City, and the nonfiction book American Berserk and The Age of Astonishment: John Morris in the Miracle Century, From the Civil War to the Cold War. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Granta, The New York Times, The (London) Independent, L.A. Weekly, Popular Mechanics, and The Daily Beast. He lives in New York City.


  1. Then I’m assuming you’d simply love the introductions and prefaces to Robert Fiske’s Dictionary of Unendurable English!

  2. You have misunderstood Prof. Pinker’s essay. I’m not sure he predicted such a ludicrous outcry. You also don’t seem to understand that a usage panel is a method of determining consensus. Do a side-by-side comparison of the 5th and 1st editions. Which rules changed? Does this mean one of the usage panels was or is wrong about something?

    How do you suppose Middle English became Modern English? Where do you think thou, thee, and thy escaped to? Language changes little by little, and there’s nothing anyone can do to stop it. Therefore the only “correct form” of english is the way the majority of speakers speak and write. That is Prof. Pinker’s argument, plain and simple. It is clear to anyone who paid any attention to his essay that he was not saying, “Write however you want, because everything is correct!” Your defensive misinterpretation confuses me. That’s all.

  3. Two questions, please:
    1) I currently use the Fourth Edition – is it imperative I upgrade to the Fifth? (aka, How much am I missing?)
    2) And also, same Usage Panel as the Fourth?

  4. Bill, same dictionary (fourth edition — bought it as a Christmas present for myself after Esquire included it among its Top Ten books of that year), kept in the same place: on the floor, by my feet, at the desk where I work. As for PL’s question, “Is the hardcover worth the cost?”, absolutely — this publication is so much more than merely a resource…it is a work of art, with its numerous illustrations, photographs, charts; it’s precisely the kind of book I would have spent hours as a boy just exploring its pages at random, and in fact I still find myself doing just that. I’ll pick it up in search of a particular piece of information, and a half-hour later will still be flipping from one delightful little treasure to another. (And it’s obviously durable, as Bill’s first edition atttests.”) Yes, PL, it’s worth the cost.

  5. A fine summary & critique, Bill, that makes the point that the quality of tuition is generally the gist of complaints the descriptive / prescriptive tensions have tightened too fast to either lexicographic method. It is interesting to compared the use of the two terms by linguists, who follow Ferdinand de Saussure’s contrast between langue (language) and parole (speech), the first being a standardized body of rules and conventions which precede individual usage, and the second individual usage in the instance of speech. Langue is independent of parole in the same way that theory is independent of practice. His distinction has been extended to semiotics, which he can also rightly be called the father of, as well. There are two points of interest to me here. In the actual instance of speaking we generally do not “weigh” our words in the way we do when we write. The expression, “Let me speak so I’ll know what I’m thinking”, is an accurate description the majority of our spoken exchanges. This rush of express is sometimes an inspiration rather than a gaffe. Some of the most creative uses of language come as people grope to express themselves. Consider double negatives. “I ain’t got no more of nothing,” is a wonderful way to emphasize one’s degree of loss or privation. It is descriptively eloquent if prescriptively irregular. My objection to a strict prescriptive lexicography is that it makes little dispensation for idiosyncratic expression. No more brilliant slip-ups a la Yogi Berra. Spoonerisms, oxymoron and malapropisms aside, if we consider speech rather than writing as a “higher” order of language (de Saussure, like most French speakers, did not) then we are favoring a fluidity of expression over meaning The second point you have already given away in your essay. You have an “ear” for style, not a “brain”. The surest test of clear writing if it can be spoken clearly, and incorrect usage generally “sounds” before we know why it is wrong – even on the page.
    My greatest objection, however, to the prescriptive mode has to do the much more rigorously enforced standardization of orthography, much more a function and effect of mass literacy than semantics. Simply put, I believe that people should be encouraged to spell words the way they hear them. Phonics is fine, but our collective fetish for spelling bees and spell checkers is a denial of the wealth of accents, pidgins, dialects and the vernacular vein that throbs with the lifeblood of language. William Shakespeare, James Joyce, George Orwell, John Barth, Eudora Welty, Mark Twain, James Tate, Jack London, Damon Runyon, Ishmael Reed, Salman Rushdie, V. S. Naipaul, Anthony Burgess, Stephen King, Nelson Algren, William Faulkner, Dorothy Parker, Brendan Behan, James Kelman, Peter Carey, Zora Neale Hurston, William Burroughs, Hubert Selby, Jr., Roddy Doyle, Irving Welsh and…You get the point: I could go on. All those authors used some mixture of colloquialisms, idioms, slang, patois, lingo and tongue turning terminology to write up the rigmarole that rang in their ears. Using irregular orthography was one of the principal means they employ to grab the readers attention and force them to hear the rhythms of words that move in meters of the beating heart, not the bleating brain. I truly believe that if children were encouraged to spell creatively rather than prescriptively, we’d have more writers. Their usage, like that of the authors named above, would never have passed the sniff test of Dr. Johnson, James Mitchell Bonnell, or Samuel Webster. The point is not that “purists love above all to catch other purists in some supposed sin against English grammar,” as Stephen Pinker quoted Thomas Pyles (in the wrong spirit, because Pyles was onto something more fundamental) as writing, but that language is larger and more takes more shapes than any book can ever contain. Some writers just hate that.

  6. Glad to know about the 5th edition and will order it asap. However, two disagreements with Will Lashley, above: first, how annoying it would be if people spelled English as they heard it (I already hate names like “Judee” and the like). See Mark Twain’s essay on English spelling.

    Second, more children would become writers if they first became readers. Most readers learn to spell correctly.

  7. Love this essay. Our dads would’ve gotten along. Just curious. . .What’s your opinion of the OED? I keep my copy by my desk on the floor :)

  8. Thanks to all of you for reading my essay so closely and commenting so thoughtfully. A few words of response:

    Stephen, Maybe I did misinterpret Prof. Pinker’s essay, but I stick with my contention that the mass misuse of a word – using “credible” to mean “credulous,” for instance – does not make the usage correct. Guess we have to agree to disagree.

    Elle, I’m sorry that I don’t know much about the fourth edition – other than the fact that it’s 10,000 words slimmer than the fifth.

    PL, The hardcover of the fifth edition lists for $60 but is available on Amazon for $37.50. And buyers get one free download, a $24.99 value, to an iPhone, iPad, iPod or Android smartphone. Definitely worth every dime.

    Mike D’Orso, I’m very familiar with the experience you describe – diving into the dictionary in search of a particular thing and finding myself digging up some unrelated treasure half an hour later. The fifth edition, with its abundant, elegant Usage Notes and Word Histories, is already exacerbating the situation.

    Will Lashley, I don’t believe the makers of The American Heritage Dictionary, or Strunk and White, or I are opposed to what you call “idiosyncratic expression.” Breaking the rules, as I noted, is part of the joy of writing well. As for your long list of writers who use colloquialisms, idioms, slang, patois and other irregular forms of speech, I would add the Irish writer Kevin Barry, who has just published his first novel, a glorious train wreck of idiosyncratic expressions called “City of Bohane.”

    Rebecca, My opinion of the OED is that it is a masterpiece but I can’t bring myself to use a dictionary that requires me to take steroids and peer through a magnifying glass. A failing on my part, no doubt, but I’m perfectly happy with my American Heritage Dictionary.

  9. I am italian, reading your essay I got the the” insane, sudden urge” ( to buy the Dictionary and put it on the floor beside my desk!
    Thank you.

  10. Bill Morris has misunderstood my essay in a similar manner to the New Yorker’s dance critic Joan Acocella, whose accusations he repeats point for point. I explain these misconceptions in an article in Slate, “False fronts in the language wars,”
    In short:
    1. I am not an “avowed descriptivist.” From its first sentence, my essay asserts that certain usages are unmistakably incorrect, and seeks to understand what makes them incorrect. (Mr. Morris cites usage errors by George W. Bush without telling his readers that he took them from my essay, which used them as examples.) Anyone who reads the essay with an open mind will see that it does not argue for descriptivism but rather shows that the 50-year-old prescriptivist-descriptivist controversy is intellectually bogus.
    2. Mr. Morris ripped the rhetorical question “Who’s to say they’re wrong?” out of context. It is found in a paragraph that begins, “How can we reconcile the apparent circularity of a dictionary with the indisputable fact that certain usages are just plain wrong?” and is followed by an answer to just those questions. It won’t do to say that the writers of dictionaries should flout the opinions of actual writers and speakers about changing usages; if they did, dictionaries would define “deprecate” as “ward off by prayer” (its original, “correct” meaning), together with thousands of other obsolete definitions.
    Readers who wish to understand issues of usage, rather than box in their thinking with half-century-old false dichotomies, are encouraged to read my article in Slate, or better still, the essay in the AHD.
    Steven Pinker

  11. I happen to be the son of William Morris, which gives me no special expertise save to say that my father would not have been “spinning in his grave” over Prof. Pinker’s essay, with which he probably would have agreed in large part. The manichean “prescriptivist/descriptivist” construct is bogus and always has been. While the AHD was conceived as an antidote to MW3, what my father saw MW3 lacking was guidance, not dictatorial pronouncements, something more than a terse “non-standard” note on disputed usages but less than a flat condemnation. My father, by the way, loved and celebrated slang, jargon and other “non-standard” language in his newspaper column for more than 40 years.

    If “prescriptivists” don’t like the map of language the “descriptivists” draw, they are free to rail against it. But a fanatical adherence to imaginary “rules of usage” puts one in danger of losing touch with a living language.

  12. By the way, if your local public library subscribes to the OED Online (as many do), you may be able to access it online for free. It’s much easier to use than the print edition, and constantly updated.

  13. Pauline Kael and Gloria Steinem! Between the two of them, I’d be willing to trust any linguistic question to those two minds.

  14. I’m no fan of Steven Pinker, but as a fan of reality and decent argumentation, I’d like Bill Morris to defend the many unsubstantiated (and, to me, insubstantial) claims in this paragraph: “I’m still having trouble believing that such lame logic and tawdry sensationalism — beware the witch hunt! watch out for Red-baiters! — were allowed between the covers of this otherwise wonderful book. I can only guess that the editors were hoping that by including Pinker’s gibberish they would defuse charges of elitism. If so, they’ve shown poor judgment and a surprising lack of respect for this dictionary’s rich history, high standards and unapologetically prescriptivist leanings.”

    Where is “lame” logic? (And, uh, how old and well-attested is that usage of “lame”?) Where is the “tawdry sensationalism”? If you want to bash something in the manner of a third-rate blogger circa 2003, go for it. If you want to say something of substance, try again.

  15. I know this topic is old, but I would like to add a comment from the perspective of “a man on the street.”

    I am a high school dropout. When I need a dictionary to help with a formal letter, or a job resume, I prefer a conservative dictionary which makes clear the difference between good usage and substandard English.

    My favorite dictionaries are: Webster’s New International Dictionary Second Edition Unabridged (1934); Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary Fifth or Sixth Edition (1930s-1950s); and The American Heritage Dictionary First Edition. These dictionaries contain the vast majority of word definitions for which I am likely to search. The usage notes are excellent and easy to understand. Old copies of these dictionaries can be found at thrift stores and library sales for fifty cents.

    If I need definitions for newer technical/scientific words, or newly developed slang, I use the internet.

    I don’t know if that means that I am a prescriptivist or a descriptivist, but I do wish Merriam-Webster would publish an updated version of the unabridged second edition using the original principles and guidelines.

  16. Hi, I am persian and I am studying English. Fortunately, I have been able to purchase majority of important English dictionaries including OED and I should confess that by far AHD is my favorite. I have always considered myself an incorrigible lexiconophilist and I really love to collect and of course peruse all kinds of dictionary. Regrettably, however, I don’t have this particular edition of AHD and after reading your beautifully written review, I must say, thanks to you I am intent to buy it ASAP. For me it is much more fun to read a dictionary than to read anything else and I think AHD is the most enjoyable to read.

    Just ventilating and sharing my interest. :)

  17. This is the perspective of an ESL student:

    If some people confuse deprecate with depreciate, perhaps the dictionary should mention the problem. Should we let a patient know about the infection? Should we cure the infection or allow the virus to take over as nature intended? Should we fix a 5% problem before it becomes a 60% problem or a 100% problem? Ignoring the problem or accepting it as a natural consequence is the easy way out.

    The descriptive dictionary legitimatizes the error. If we commit to the pure descriptive path, we will soon have dictionaries with 5million bold-faced entries and those will be millions of pages long because economics will not be a problem in electronic versions. Perhaps we could use the web as the corpus. Facebook perhaps. Every common error will creep into the dictionary. The world will be free from the word-nazis and well into word-anarchy. Greek dictionaries will be full of greeklish (greek without orthography and written using the English alphabet).

    It’s simple really: Should dictionaries guard against changes in use where the tool of language is damaged? I’m not talking about spelling, new words, and things like that, but about actual lost words, diluted meaning, and common errors, and only when the new use is young and insignificant.

    On the OED we have:

    deprecate, v.
    [f. L. dēprecāt-, ppl. stem of dēprecārī to pray (a thing) away, to ward off by praying, pray against, f. de- I. 2 + precārī to pray.]
    1. trans. To pray against (evil); to pray for deliverance from; to seek to avert by prayer. arch.
    †2. intr. To pray (against). Obs. rare.
    3.a trans. To plead earnestly against; to express an earnest wish against (a proceeding); to express earnest disapproval of (a course, plan, purpose, etc.).
    3.b More generally, to express disapproval of (a person, quality, etc.); to disparage or belittle. (Sometimes confused with depreciate.) Cf. self-deprecation, etc. s.v. self-. Widely regarded as incorrect, though found in the work of established writers.
    †4.a To make prayer or supplication to, to beseech (a person). Obs.
    †4.b absol. To make supplication. Obs.
    †5 To call down by prayer, invoke (evil). Obs.

    On AHD 4th ed we have:

    1. To express disapproval of; deplore.
    2. To belittle; depreciate.

    [Latin dēprecārī, dēprecāt-, to ward off by prayer : dē-, de- + precārī, to pray; See prek- in Indo-European Roots.]

    Usage Note: The first and fully accepted meaning of deprecate is “to express disapproval of.” But the word has steadily encroached on the meaning of depreciate. It is now used, almost to the exclusion of depreciate, in the sense “to belittle or mildly disparage,” as in He deprecated his own contribution. In an earlier survey, this newer sense was approved by a majority of the Usage Panel.

  18. You certainly did misinterpret Pinker’s article. And how you can possibly believe that an article by the distinguished chairman of the Usage Pane was included to avoid any charge of “elitism” is beyond my comprehension. I believe there were two articles, both by writers who would be considered “descriptivists”. Not surprising, because all scholarly study of language is descriptivist these days. And how you or your father can think that “premature” is a term that “usually refers to a birth that takes place before the baby is ready” is also beyond comprehension. Is the expression “premature ejaculation” also a mistake? Should it be an “untimely ejaculation”? It’s impossible for me to give an honest opinion of your father’s idea without using the sort of foolish language you use to describe Pinker’s opinions. “Premature” means “too soon” — and not just from a dreaded descriptivist point of view.

    Pinker is one of the planet’s foremost experts on language while you and the women whose article you have copied point for point simply don’t know what a descriptivist is.

    And you can’t agree to disagree about the fact that if enough people accept a particular usage then it becomes correct because it is not a matter of opinion, it is a matter of demonstrable and incontrovertible fact. It is a fact because it is obviously how we have gotten from Old English to Modern English, and why so many of the words we use have changed their meanings — often many times — since they first entered English. To effectively deny that semantic shift and other changes in language ever occur is an untenable position if you wish to be taken seriously.

  19. From the perspective of an applied linguistics student.

    This entire thread is so wonderfully interesting. The general idea that permeated during my undergrad was that being on either extreme tended to create more problems for observing and quantifying language, but that it is necessary to understand both sides since the argument over which way to view language is still being had. Personally I find that having a definition of how a word is being used, what is perceived as correct use, and how it has been used over time offers the most satisfactory amount of information to then decide how to continue using that word, rather than just using a descriptive or a prescriptive definition. So I tend to use multiple dictionaries which probably cuts down on efficiency terribly. I have to agree with Ehsan that I now want to go look at the AHD and other dictionaries.

    Thanks for the thoughts to chew on.

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