English Plus+ News, November 2000
Many times discussions or arguments about correct usage in English are settled by looking things up in a dictionary. Many times people are surprised, and even shocked, with what they find in the dictionary when they look something up. Maybe they are looking things up in the wrong kind of dictionary.
When I was young, we used to have a little joke that went, "There ain't no such word as ain't because ain't ain't in the dictionary." Most of us had been corrected by teachers, if not parents, not to use the word ain't. Imagine my surprise when, just for fun, I looked up the word, and there it was, right in my school's Thorndike-Barnhart Junior School Dictionary.My teachers had told me there was no such word - after all, what did ai not mean? - but there is was such a word. It was in the dictionary.
This was my introduction to the reality that there are two different editorial policies used by the editors of dictionaries. The terms we use to describe them are descriptive and prescriptive. You can probably figure out what they mean.
Descriptive dictionaries describe the language. They include words that are commonly used even if they are nonstandard. They will often include nonstandard spellings. Prescriptive dictionaries tend to be more concerned about correct or standard English. They prescribe the proper usage and spelling of words. That school dictionary in which I found ain't was a descriptive dictionary.
American Noah Webster's An American Dictionary of the English Language (1828) was also prescriptive. Webster had been publishing a spelling book for schools since the 1780's. He was motivated by a utilitarian view of spelling as well as a concern for precise communication. His definitions tend to be far more precise than those in many dictionaries today. His book also prescribes certain spellings and uses for many words. About twenty years ago, a publisher saw a need and reprinted the 1828 Webster dictionary. It has been a steady seller since then in spite of its lack of modern terms because many people are still looking for dictionaries to provide guidance.
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