From the Delancey Place site: Today's selection -- from Word by Word by Kory Stamper. The smaller the word, the harder it is to define. The author, an editor of dictionaries, describes the difficulty involved in defining short words:
"We were working on revising the Collegiate [Dictionary] for its eleventh edition, and we had just finished the letter S. ... I signed out the next batch in T and grabbed the galleys for that batch along with the boxes -- two boxes! -- of citations for the batch. While flipping through the galley pages, I realized that my batch -- the entire thing -- was just one word: 'take.' Hmm, I thought, that's curious. Lexicography, like most professions, offers its devotees some benchmarks by which you can measure your sad little existence, and one is the size of the words you are allowed to handle.
"Most people assume that long words or rare words are the hardest to define because they are often the hardest to spell, say, and remember. The truth is, those are usually a snap. 'Schadenfreude' may be difficult to spell, but it's a cinch to define, because all the uses of it are very, very semantically and syntactically clear. It's always a noun, and it's often glossed because even though it's now an English word, it's one of those delectable German compounds we love to slurp into English.
"Generally speaking, and as mentioned earlier, the smaller and more commonly used the word is, the more difficult it is to define. Words like 'but,' 'as,' and 'for' have plenty of uses that are syntactically similar but not identical. Verbs like 'go' and 'do' and 'make' (and, yes, 'take') don't just have semantically oozy uses that require careful definition, but semantically drippy uses as well. 'Let's do dinner' and 'let's do laundry' are identical syntactically but feature very different semantic meanings of 'do.' And how do you describe what the word 'how' is doing in this sentence?
"It's not just semantic fiddliness that causes lexicographical pain. Some words, like 'the' and 'a,' are so small that we barely think of them as words. Most of the publicly available databases that we use for citational spackling don't even index some of these words, let alone let you search for them -- for entirely practical reasons. A search for 'the' in our in-house citation database returns over one million hits, which sends the lexicographer into fits of audible swearing, then weeping.
"To keep the lexicographers from crying and disturbing the people around them, sometimes these small words are pulled from the regular batches and are given to more senior editors for handling. They require the balance of concision, grammatical prowess, speed, and fortitude usually found in wiser and more experienced editors.
I didn't know any of that at the time, of course, because I was not a wise or more experienced editor. I was hapless and dumb, but dutifully so: grabbing a fistful of index cards from one of the two boxes, I began sorting the cards into piles by part of speech. This is the first job you must do as a lexicographer dealing with paper, because those citations aren't sorted for you. I figured that 'take' wasn't going to be too terrible in this respect: there's just a verb and a noun to contend with. When those piles were two and a half inches high and began cascading onto my desk, I decided to dump the rest of the citations into my pencil drawer and stack my citations in the now-empty boxes.
"Sorting citations by their part of speech is usually simple. Most words entered in the dictionary only have one part of speech, and if they have more than one, the parts of speech are usually easy to distinguish between -- the noun 'blemish' and the verb 'blemish,' for example, or the noun 'courtesy' and the adjective 'courtesy.' By the time you've hit T on a major dictionary overhaul like a new edition of the Collegiate, you can sort citations by part of speech in your sleep. For a normal-sized word like 'blemish,' it's a matter of minutes.
"Five hours in, I had finished sorting the first box of citations for 'take'"
Word by Word: The Secret Life of Dictionaries
Author: Kory Stamper
Publisher: Pantheon Books
Copyright 2017 by Kory Stamper
All DelanceyPlace.com profits are donated to charity and support children's literacy projects.This message has been edited. Last edited by: Geoff,
Interesting. However, can't you just define "an" or "a" as an article?
I think the hardest words to define are those that are specific concepts or feelings.
"A" has a lot of uses. It means "one":
A student raised their hand.
It is used as a general reference:
A lion is a dangerous animal.
It is used with the first mention of something:
Would you like a drink?
It is used with jobs:
I am an archaeologist.
Using "a" and "the" correctly can be a challenge for ESL students.
And to native speakers of American English. While off the point of the above quoted material, My observation is that many ESL students strive for proper grammar despite its quirkiness, whereas many natives don't care.
When I wrote "correctly" I should have written "according to standard English". Geoff, surely you are not suggesting that native speakers don't know how to use "a" and "the".
Many use "a" when"an" is appropriate, as in, "Give me a orange."
But you know what I'm going to say, right? There are many dialects and registers of English, and even within standard English there is a lot of variation. I don't know the history of "a" before vowels to know if it is a mistake or a dialect feature. But considering the intricacies of using "a" and "the", remembering to use "an" before vowels is the least of an ESL student's worries.
You say that many native speakers don't care about proper grammar - maybe, but so what? Proper grammar is nothing more than a random assortment of ipse dixit prescriptions (at least that's what it means to me). I don't think ESL students have much use for proper grammar either.
I haven't heard native English speakers misusing "a" or "the." Perhaps linguists think "a" and "the" are complicated, but generally I think English speakers understand their use.
We do inhabit different worlds, Kalleh. I sometimes hear people hereabout using an implied article. As goofy said, it may not be misuse if all understand. It's normal in some languages, such as Russian.
"A" and "the" are complicated, AND native speakers understand their use. And a good dictionary should describe their use.
Language rules are very complicated but most native speakers never have to think consciously about them.
A little off-subject, but related to the concept that usually people understand what is meant by the context. There has been a big brouhaha about the word the nursing exam uses to describe the "patient." While we mostly use "patient" in real life (nursing homes often use "resident"), the nursing exam uses "client." Many are requesting that be changed, thinking it's confusing, etc. Someone outside of nursing made an excellent comment about that today: "I don't know what all the hullabaloo is about. Surely from the context of the question, the student knows who they are talking about." Amen!
I think I've mentioned this elsewhere, but it fits in with this thread, and also with Kalleh's post above.
Yet another UK/US difference: over here we would say that someone is "in hospital" if they are a patient, whereas we'd say "in the hospital" to describe their location - they might be working, visiting or whatever. I believe Americans would say "in the hospital" in both cases.
Build a man a fire and he's warm for a day. Set a man on fire and he's warm for the rest of his life.
When a Frenchman is all wet, does one say he's inSeine?
We do arnie. I did not know the English ever said, "in the hospital."
That's a feature of AAVE.