Are you confident in your knowledge of English? Pretty certain about what’s right and what’s wrong? Here’s a cautionary tale about what happens if you don’t take account of language change…

A friend was chatting in an online group designed to help language learners practise their skills. She kindly pointed out to an Italian chap that something he’d written ‘wasn’t a word in English’. Straight away, he sent her a dictionary entry showing its usage and definition.

Now this was pretty embarrassing – to be told that you’re wrong about your own language by a non-native speaker. She wrote to me to ask whether she was going mad; she’d never heard of that word (which was nothing obscure – just an unusual construction), but there it was – actually in the dictionary! My friend wondered if she’d effectively been living under a stone her whole life.

Well, no, she wasn’t going mad. I had never come across the word either, but I could easily see what it meant. It was a perfect example of language change in action.

The word itself isn’t that important here. But it raises an interesting question: is ‘the dictionary’ always right?

What’s a dictionary for?

There are two distinct purposes to a dictionary, and they’ve been at odds with one another since the first one was published (by Robert Cawdrey in 1604).

One aim is to determine how language ‘should’ be used – to set a standard. This is the ‘prescriptive’ approach, and is the way many of us have been taught to treat dictionaries – as a fount of knowledge, and an arbiter in disputes: ‘If it’s in the dictionary, it must be right.’

The other approach is ‘descriptive’ – to capture our language as it actually is used, without judgement. And our Italian friend wrote a word that clearly is used by plenty of people – which is why it had made its way into many dictionaries.

But not all.

Are all dictionaries the same?

Dictionary editors can choose how much information to give about a word (eg, its history, its derivatives or examples of it in use). But they can also choose whether to include a word… or not.

Some dictionaries make a distinction between words that are in standard usage and words that are still considered to be slang or incorrect. Other dictionaries just record a word and its common meaning(s) without commenting on its correctness.

The word in question was indeed in several dictionaries online. But not in the one I have on my bookshelf, or its online version. All this means is that the current editors haven’t updated the book yet – they may be giving it more thought, or seeking broader evidence. It doesn’t mean that word is wrong.

But if a word doesn’t appear in every dictionary, that means it may not be acceptable everywhere, and it should be used with caution.

I liked the word. But if I had seen it in my proofreading capacity, I would probably have changed it. However, it’s my job to keep on top of our changing language, and I shall keep a sharp lookout for this word becoming more mainstream.

So… what was the word?

The word was ‘unuseful’. You will have your opinions, and I’d love to hear them!



Catherine Kendal is a proofreader and editor who likes nothing better than grappling with the nitty gritty of our language. She takes the description ‘pernickety’ as a compliment.