Webster's defines â€œdefineâ€ as: â€œto state the meaning or meanings of (as a word).â€
That's right, dictionaries not only define things, they define what it means to define things. Talk about privilege. Actually, that has always been my dream job â€” the job of writing my own job description. (Trust me when I tell you it would be very short yet still pack in multiple occurrences of the words â€œbeachâ€ and â€œBrad Pitt.â€)
Not only do dictionaries write their own rules, but as they do, the public never questions their authority. Imagine what our country would look like if all power-holders got that kind of free pass. Crawford, Texas, would be the nation's capital, and brush-clearing would be declared the basic qualification for a Ph.D.
Many people assume that dictionaries' rulings are absolute, wise and just. Many also seem to think that dictionaries are infallible. I mean, if you look up the word â€œflatulenceâ€ and read that it is â€œthe ability to write legibly with either hand or either foot,â€ whose wisdom are you going to question first? Yours? Or the guys who know what that little â€œvtâ€ and backwards e mean? Chances are you'll just assume you were wrong all along and end up dropping your new vocabulary word at cocktail parties in a vain attempt to brag about your own ambidextrousness.
We accept dictionaries' word as gospel and never stop to wonder whether they actually deserve this blind faith.
As a citizen of a country that prides itself on publicly depantsing its leaders, I find this downright un-American. So it is with a surge of self-satisfied patriotism that I report to you that dictionaries are quite fallible.
I learned this recently when I checked two different dictionaries to see whether they had yet reached a consensus on whether â€œunderwayâ€ is one word or two. No. They have not.
But I noticed something even more interesting. In the sentence, â€œPreparations were underway,â€ â€œWebster's New World College Dictionary says â€œunderwayâ€ is an adjective. Merriam-Webster Online says this function is actually an adverb.
Remember that adverbs aren't just those -ly words that describe actions. They also answer the questions where? when? and how? So in the sentence, â€œFinals were yesterday,â€ the word â€œyesterdayâ€ is an adverb. Compare that to the sentence, â€œFinals were hard,â€ in which â€œhardâ€ is an adjective.
So does â€œpreparations were .?.?.?â€ call for an adverb or an adjective?
My first instinct, of course, was to assume I had lost my mind. I was almost too racked with self-doubt to muster up the courage to ask someone. Happily, I got over it.
I wrote to Geoffrey K. Pullum, professor of linguistics at UC Santa Cruz and one of the main guys behind the popular LanguageLog.com blog. This guy actually co-wrote a grammar book. Not like my books. A good one.
I got straight to the point: â€œUnless my brain is broken (which is quite possible), 'Webster's New World' and 'Merriam Webster' can't decide whether 'underway'/'under way' can be an adverb. .?.?.?Am I a dink?â€
He was gracious enough to reply: â€œDictionaries are very bad at diagnosing adjectivehood and adverbhood in general; there are good reasons for being suspicious about whether they have it right. Investigation would be needed to figure out whether people are using 'underway' adverbially now.â€
â€œInvestigation would be needed.â€ In other words, the dictionaries don't know. I hope that this revelation will make at least a tiny dent in our national epidemic of linguistic low self-esteem. I, for one, will keep riding high on Pullum's most salient comment: â€œYou are not a dink. Whatever that is.â€
?JUNE CASAGRANDE is a freelance writer and author of â€œGrammar Snobs Are Great Big Meaniesâ€ and â€œMortal Syntax: 101 Language Choices That Will Get You Clobbered by the Grammar Snobs â€” Even If You're Right.â€ She may be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.