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If 'the Dictionary' Doesn't List a Word, Try Checking Another Dictionary

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AA: I'm Avi Arditti with Rosanne Skirble, and this week on WORDMASTER: We continue our conversation with Rutgers University English professor Jack Lynch.

RS: His latest book is "The Lexicographer's Dilemma." In it he challenges the idea of treating dictionaries as authorities. But he agrees there are times when you want to turn to a dictionary.

JACK LYNCH: "The problem is assuming that there is such a thing as 'the dictionary.' We sometimes say 'Ah, that's not a word because it's not in the dictionary.' And there are many hundreds, many thousands of dictionaries of English. They're just made up by people."

RS: "Well, what about papers that are submitted to your class, for example?"

AA: "I was just going to ask that question! You're an English professor, so how much latitude do you give your students?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, what I try to get my students to understand is that the form of English that they are taught all through school is 'correct' English is, in fact, just one kind of English. I want my students to speak the kind of English that gets you in positions of power, gets you a job, gets you published and so on. But it's not the only correct English. And if you were to speak the way you do in an interview, if you were to speak that way at home, in a bar, in a pool hall, you'd sound like an idiot."

RS: "As you were working through this book, how were you answering that pressing question that people were asking you: 'Is this right, is this wrong?' You're giving us a general answer: 'Well, there's many ways to say it.'"

AA: "Which is what an English learner probably doesn't want to hear."

JACK LYNCH: "Exactly, and I do have to distinguish between native speakers of English and speakers of English as a foreign language. When linguists, when professional scholars of language talk about 'the rules,' they mean the system of principles and guidelines that means 'The boy sees the girl' is a grammatically acceptable sentence' and 'Girl sees boy the the' isn't.

"The thing is, every native speaker already knows virtually every actual rule of English. If you're not a native speaker of English, you may not have learned all of those first sets of real rules, the real rules that make something acceptable to every native speaker of English."

RS: "So what would be some of your advice for students who are learning English as a foreign language?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, do pay careful attention to things like usage notes in dictionaries, which often give you some idea of the contexts in which a certain word is acceptable and the contexts in which it isn't."

AA: "Well, so now, were someone to ask you, well, what exactly is the lexicographer's dilemma -- besides the title of your new book -- what would you tell them?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, it's the same dilemma faced by anyone who has to survey the whole language. So it can also be the grammarian's dilemma, or if you want to use a lovely word the orthographer's dilemma, which has to do with proper spelling. It's when you survey the entire language, should your function be to spell it out in all of its messiness, its disorderliness, its chaos, its sometimes pure anarchy?

"Or should you try to fix it when you go through it? Should a dictionary maker, for instance, say that this is a good word, this is a bad word, I think this word should be used this way and should not be used this way. Or should he or she simply say this is the way a lot of people use these words. That's the dilemma, that's the thing everyone who deals with the language has to wrestle with."

AA: "And without spoiling the plot or anything, how do you answer that? What's your gut, your first reaction to that dilemma? Which side do you tend to fall on?"

JACK LYNCH: "Well, I fall on both sides depending on the situation. Descriptive linguistics just describes the state of the language. Prescriptive grammarians prescribe the language. They spell out what it should be and they say 'You are not allowed to say ain't, that's a naughty word.'"

AA: "And dictionaries these days do, if I'm not mistaken, do tend to be descriptivist, right? They just sort of describe how people use words, rather than telling them, as I understand in the past, they would be more prescriptivist."

JACK LYNCH: "Yes, for the most part. The late nineteenth century to the present, most of the big, serious dictionaries have been more descriptive than prescriptive. The better ones, though, have good usage notes and tell you some extra information about words, which might say this word is informal, this word is vulgar, this word is dialect or slang or something like that. So in that sense they can be used the same way a prescriptive dictionary would, but they're not just some person's pet peeves and hang-ups."

AA: Jack Lynch is an English professor at Rutgers University and author of "The Lexicographer's Dilemma." You can find the first part of our interview at

RS: And that's WORDMASTER for this week. With Avi Arditti, I'm Rosanne Skirble.