A Word, Please: Unwrap vast grammar knowledge this holiday

You’ve had a lot of opportunities to make New Year’s resolutions. By now, no doubt, you have six-pack abs, you speak eight languages and your cuticles are the envy of hand models everywhere. Good Housekeeping will be at your place any day now for a photo spread titled “America’s Most Spotless Garage.”

Obviously, you need a new challenge.

How about resolving to improve your grammar? I’m not talking about working “whom” into casual conversation or making a solemn vow to never split an infinitive. No, the resolution I suggest is a quick, easy task that could, in one fell swoop, solve more of your language problems than a year spent listening to your grammar-stickler aunt. I’m talking about learning how to use — really use — a dictionary.

We all know the basics of using these ubiquitous reference books. If you want to know what a word means or how to spell it, you just flip through pages of a physical dictionary or enter the term into an online edition and, bam: answer found.

But there’s more — much more — if only you know how to decipher it.

Here are just a few of the seemingly baffling grammar and usage questions the dictionary can answer: Is it “I have drank tea many times” or “I have drunk”? What’s the plural of cactus? Why does “smart” have “smarter” but “intelligent” doesn’t have “intelligenter”? What do I do when my spell-checker flags a word like “unfun” or “neighborhoodwide”? How do I choose between “donut” and “doughnut”? Can I use a noun as an adjective, like by saying “It’s a bagel day” or “It’s a guy thing”?

To unlock the answers hidden in your dictionary, you must start at the beginning: Most dictionaries, somewhere right up front, have a section with a name like “Guide to the Dictionary” or “How to Use the Dictionary” or “Explanatory Notes.” Most also have this information online.

These sections have headers like “Combining forms, prefixes and suffixes,” “Attributive nouns,” “Variants” and, the most helpful of all, “Inflected forms.”

Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find in the latter: “When these inflected forms are created in a manner considered regular in English (as by adding -s or -es to nouns, -ed and -ing to verbs, and -er and -est to adjectives and adverbs) and when it seems that there is nothing about the formation likely to give the dictionary user doubts, the inflected form is not shown,” Merriam-Webster’s states. “If the inflected form is created in an irregular way or if the dictionary user is likely to have doubts about it (even though it is formed regularly), the inflected form is shown in boldface.”

Did you catch that? It means that if you look up “drink” and “walk,” the former will be followed by “drank” and “drunk” in bold, but “walk” won’t have corresponding information. That means you can apply a simple formula to the regular verb “walk”: Just add “ed” to get both its past tense (yesterday he walked) and its past participle (in the past he has walked). Conversely, it gives you proof positive that “Yesterday I drinked” is incorrect. The very presence of the boldface “drank” means you can’t just add “ed.”

This same section tells you how to form plurals of irregular nouns and that, when there are two correct plurals like “cactuses” and “cacti,” both are included. This is also where you’ll learn how to identify legitimate comparatives and superlatives such as “smarter” and “smartest.”

Under “Combing forms, prefixes and suffixes,” you learn that a term you assembled yourself by attaching a prefix like “un” to an existing word like “fun” is 100% legit, despite what spell-checker tells you. Under “Variants” you’ll learn when multiple spellings of the same word are correct, like “doughnut” and “donut.” Under attributive nouns, you’ll learn that even nouns like “bagel” can be used as adjectives, as in “It’s a bagel day.”

And that’s just some of the gold you can mine from your own dictionary with nothing more than a little resolve.


JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at