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Words to the Wise

Get Yourself a Good Dictionary

Soon after I launched my freelance editing business, I threw out all my dictionaries. A rash act for an editor. I had just attended an editing course where we were told that what we needed even more than a good style guide was a good, up-to-date dictionary. My dictionaries were the ones I'd had in school, so old that they lacked not only current word usage but also any words to do with computers or the internet.

I bought myself the best Canadian dictionary, the Canadian Oxford 2nd edition. And, because I work for writers planning to publish in the United States, I bought one of the best American: Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary 11th edition. While I've acquired several more since, these two are still the ones I go to most often. It's safe to say that when I'm copyediting a writer's work, I spend more time checking the dictionary than doing anything else. I can't trust the writer to have gotten it right—is it northeast or north-east or north east?—and I won't trust my memory.

Why do I recommend that all writers invest in a good dictionary? Because nothing will kill your chances of publication faster than mistakes you could have corrected by quick reference to a good dictionary. Maybe the acquisitions editor you're courting won't know that it's northeast, but there's a lot she will know, and you can be sure she will spot your inattention within seconds of opening your manuscript. She reads that kind of stuff every day, and is weary of it.

But there's an even better reason for investing in a good dictionary. The tools of the writer's trade are the words and syntax of this glorious language we call English. A good dictionary is a gold mine of information on meaning, usage, idioms, word choice, synonyms, grammar, spelling, punctuation, style, to say nothing of biographical, historical, geographical, and statistical tidbits of all kinds. You could read it for hours!

Which brings me to the question of print or online. I use both every day. For me, the advantages of print are twofold: first, I find things faster; and second, my roving eye always spies something interesting nearby. In checking the compound twofold (or is it two-fold?) in the Canadian Oxford, I discovered that 'twould is a legitimate, though archaic, contraction of it would, and that two solitudes is an accepted Canadian expression originating with Hugh MacLennan's famous novel. You won't find two solitudes in the American Merriam-Webster, and you won't learn either of these things by checking twofold online.

Lovers of dictionaries disagree on which are the best, and the spats can become quite heated. The big names—Oxford, Webster, Collins—will serve you well as long as the edition you use is recent and general. Save the specialized dictionaries for your special uses: you won't find the ordinary words or expressions you need in them. Above all, use the dictionary for the market you hope to publish in, and always check the origin of the word. If the word is "chiefly Brit," think twice about whether it's the best choice for that publisher you've found in Texas.

There is no excuse not to own a good, up-to-date dictionary and to use it. I laughed the day I came across a Q&A on The Chicago Manual of Style Online entitled "You Could Look It Up." Chicago posts a fresh Q&A every month, and they can't help pulling out a few questions for special treatment, like this one:

"Q. Is it 'cell phone' or 'cel phone'? I am working on a crash deadline and would appreciate a quick response.

A. Any writer who has deadlines should also have a dictionary. I always swear I'm not going to look up words for people, but it's like being a mom and picking up socks—something just makes me do it. It's 'cell phone.' Please buy a dictionary—and pick up your socks."

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