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A Word, Please: Old-fashioned dictionaries can unlock mysteries

June 01, 2012|By June Casagrande

I love online dictionaries. They're so convenient, especially for someone who, like me, must consult two different ones on a regular basis.

Within minutes of checking Webster's New World College Dictionary at yourdictionary.com for a newspaper article I'm editing, I might have to check Merriam-Webster's at m-w.com for a magazine article I'm editing. That's because the newspaper I work for edits based on Associated Press style, which defers to Webster's New World, but the magazine follows the "Chicago Manual of Style," which defers to Merriam-Webster's Collegiate for all matters not expressly covered in the style guide.

With online dictionaries, I can toggle back and forth between styles without ever having to reach across my desk or waste time flipping pages.

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But for all their convenience, the online versions fall short in one department: They can't offer the unexpected benefits you get from flipping through a hard copy.

And I'm not just talking about all the fun swear words you didn't know existed till they caught your eye on your way to the entries for "shipkicker" and "dipstick." I'm talking about the information in the front of the dictionary that unlocks secrets to the listings within — knowledge that's useful even in polite company.

For example, if you look up "bring" in a print or electronic version of Merriam-Webster's, you'll see after it "brought, bringing" in bold type. A lot of people get the gist of what that means, but few get the full implication, which is this: Everything you ever wanted to know about English verb conjugations but didn't know whom to ask is right there at your fingertips. Ditto that for other potentially confounding aspects of the language, like why "tall" can be made "taller" but for "good" you must say "better" instead of "gooder" and why "intelligent" doesn't have an -er form at all.

If you're thumbing through a physical dictionary, there's a chance you could stumble across a section up front that unlocks all these mysteries:

"Inflected forms," Merriam-Webster's writes in its "Explanatory Notes to the Dictionary" section, "are covered explicitly or by implication at the main entry for the base form. These are the plurals of nouns, the principal parts of verbs (the past tense, the past participle when it differs from the past tense, and the present participle), and the comparative and superlative forms of adjectives and adverbs.

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