Friday, September 10, 2004

According to Mr. Webster

In Sunday's New York Times Magazine's "On Language" column, Barbara Wallraff (pinch hitting for William Safire) led us to her corner of the literary world. Ms. Wallraff is senior editor of The Atlantic Monthly and editor of the newsletter Copy Editor: Language News for the Publishing Profession, and author of Your Own Words. In performing her daily tasks for these various jobs, Wallraff uses dictionaries, as many as seven at once. Her insights into the vagaries and misconceptions we carry about modern dictionaries make fascinating reading. For example, weren't we taught that the first spelling of a word entry is the preferred one? (Not necessarily true). And that all good dictionaries are basically alike? (No, no, no).

Ms. Wallraff exhorts the dictionary user to read the fine print: footnotes, end matter, whatever. That's good advice for users of any reference book.

On Language: Dictionaries--Just because they say it doesn't make it so, by Barbara Wallraff, The New York Times Magazine, September 5, 2004, p. 18.