Dictionaries and dictionary usage

The tendency to cite dictionaries as authoritative.

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Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#1  Postby don't get me started » Jun 04, 2014 5:15 am

I just thought I’d post something here which has been on my mind for a while, and hopefully contribute to the discourse in general here on RatSkep
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In many threads there is often a dispute about the meaning of words or terms. In support of a certain proposed definition of a word or term, posters often cut and paste a link to an on-line dictionary, and this appeal to authority is assumed to settle the matter. I would like to suggest that this is not that good a practice to engage in when dealing with semantic issues.
Dictionaries are good at certain things, but actually rather poor at other things.

Dictionaries are authoritative on the spelling of a word, given that our culture prefers consistency across usage. (Alltho this woz not alweys the case. Spelling woz a bit morr up to thee individuwal in earlier timz. And konsitensee is not a pre-requizit for understanding.)

Similarly dictionaries are authoritative on the part of speech, that is, they describe whether a word is a verb, noun, adjective and so on. The part of speech labeling goes into slightly more detail in such areas as whether a verb is transitive or intransitive or both, but usually avoids other categories, such as whether a verb is stative, telic or such like.

Further, dictionaries often lay claim to describing the pronunciation of a word, although there may be a tendency to reflect a certain pronunciation as ‘correct’ with other variants reduced to sub-categories of the ‘standard’ language.

Other aspects of a word that may be dealt with by a dictionary are its likely collocations (corpus based dictionaries are often good about this…non-corpus based, not so much) and perhaps it etymology and history of usage.

What dictionaries are often rather poor at are definitions of the word at hand. Because dictionaries tried to be comprehensive in coverage of the lexicon, but were bound volumes, a shorthand for definitions was developed in order to keep size down. This has carried over into electronic versions where size is not an issue any more. Definitions in dictionaries are often guilty of a very superficial gloss of a meaning and of falling into the traps of obscurity and circularity. Apart from second language learners, most people using a dictionary usually have knowledge of a word which, even though it may be unconscious, is far more comprehensive and nuanced than even the most detailed dictionary.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#2  Postby Thommo » Jun 04, 2014 5:23 am

I basically disagree. If one intends to converse with others then there is an implicit agreement to try and communicate clearly and effectively. This means sticking to agreed standards and usages of words, punctuation, grammatical structures and so forth.

Many cases in which dictionaries are appealed to are because someone simply states "X does not mean that", in which case showing that such meaning is in common use for X is a completely legitimate response. What other resolution is possible? Simple gainsaying back and forth ad infinitum? Acceptance of any and all idiosyncratic or humpty-dumpty usage?
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#3  Postby Thomas Eshuis » Jun 04, 2014 5:25 am

don't get me started wrote:I just thought I’d post something here which has been on my mind for a while, and hopefully contribute to the discourse in general here on RatSkep
.
In many threads there is often a dispute about the meaning of words or terms. In support of a certain proposed definition of a word or term, posters often cut and paste a link to an on-line dictionary, and this appeal to authority is assumed to settle the matter.

In can only speak for myself, but I use dictionary definitions to point how words are commonly used and sometimes why I interpet specific words to mean what the definition states.
If someone can offer a sound argument as to why the dictionary definition is wrong or can offer a better definition. I'm all ears.
But usually it's to demonstrate someone is using an idiosyncratic or even illogical definition.
"Respect for personal beliefs = "I am going to tell you all what I think of YOU, but don't dare retort and tell what you think of ME because...it's my personal belief". Hmm. A bully's charter and no mistake."
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#4  Postby don't get me started » Jun 04, 2014 6:12 am

Thommo wrote:I basically disagree. If one intends to converse with others then there is an implicit agreement to try and communicate clearly and effectively. This means sticking to agreed standards and usages of words, punctuation, grammatical structures and so forth.

Many cases in which dictionaries are appealed to are because someone simply states "X does not mean that", in which case showing that such meaning is in common use for X is a completely legitimate response. What other resolution is possible? Simple gainsaying back and forth ad infinitum? Acceptance of any and all idiosyncratic or humpty-dumpty usage?


Well, I was not really arguing for the wrongness of any dictionary definitions, rather that dictionary definitions are only ever a very superficial account of the meaning(s) of a word, and that a good starting place is to recognize this, and then go on to investigate ways in which a sense of a word may cover many different shades of meaning, even in some cases apparently contradictory meanings. (See my explanation of the word 'over' in the semantics thread.)

In addition, yes you are right that in normal conversation, one takes a basically affiliative stance towards one's interlocutor. However, research has shown that in normal conversation, neither syntactical structures or even lexical choice is the go to resource for sense making, which is sequence placement. (The works of Emanuel Schegloff and other conversation analysts are the source of this... observation.)

But arguing over the meanings of words is a dissafilliative stance and the 'I know what you mean' default setting which prevails in normal conversation(even when it is chaotic in strict structure and form, as most conversation is) is set aside, requiring a different approach. I'm not proposing that any 'humpty dumpty usage' is acceptable: Clearly there are limits but within these limits, there are many ways in which meaning can be described, rather than a cut and paste, an 'job's a good 'un'.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#5  Postby Thommo » Jun 04, 2014 6:20 am

don't get me started wrote:
Thommo wrote:I basically disagree. If one intends to converse with others then there is an implicit agreement to try and communicate clearly and effectively. This means sticking to agreed standards and usages of words, punctuation, grammatical structures and so forth.

Many cases in which dictionaries are appealed to are because someone simply states "X does not mean that", in which case showing that such meaning is in common use for X is a completely legitimate response. What other resolution is possible? Simple gainsaying back and forth ad infinitum? Acceptance of any and all idiosyncratic or humpty-dumpty usage?


Well, I was not really arguing for the wrongness of any dictionary definitions, rather that dictionary definitions are only ever a very superficial account of the meaning(s) of a word, and that a good starting place is to recognize this, and then go on to investigate ways in which a sense of a word may cover many different shades of meaning, even in some cases apparently contradictory meanings. (See my explanation of the word 'over' in the semantics thread.)


Sure, there are technical uses that don't appear in everyday dictionaries, colloquailisms and the like. There are always nuances of meaning that won't come across in a dictionary entry.

don't get me started wrote:In addition, yes you are right that in normal conversation, one takes a basically affiliative stance towards one's interlocutor. However, research has shown that in normal conversation, neither syntactical structures or even lexical choice is the go to resource for sense making, which is sequence placement. (The works of Emanuel Schegloff and other conversation analysts are the source of this... observation.)

But arguing over the meanings of words is a dissafilliative stance and the 'I know what you mean' default setting which prevails in normal conversation(even when it is chaotic in strict structure and form, as most conversation is) is set aside, requiring a different approach. I'm not proposing that any 'humpty dumpty usage' is acceptable: Clearly there are limits but within these limits, there are many ways in which meaning can be described, rather than a cut and paste, an 'job's a good 'un'.


I don't really have a comment, you're painting in really rather broad strokes here. I don't really associate this view with the posts I encounter where dictionaries are quoted. Do you have specific examples in mind?
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#6  Postby igorfrankensteen » Jun 04, 2014 6:49 am

It's important to recognize what dictionaries ARE, and ARE NOT.

What they ARE, are compendiums of the most commonly found usages of each word, as well as the most common pronunciations, where possible. What they are NOT, is legal authorities, which can REQUIRE a certain meaning or pronunciation be associated with each word.

What Thommo said at 2 is on point. People who are conversing must have the desire to communicate, first. When they discover that one is using a word to mean something other than they understand it to mean, if the goal IS to communicate, then appealing to a dictionary to clarify and come to some agreement what each person DOES mean, can facilitate that communication.

The most common way that I see things like dictionaries get MIS-used, is when someone declares that another person IS SAYING something which they are not saying, and demanding that because they have used a word to mean something which they did not intend it to mean, that they must be treated as though they DID intend it to mean that. This is essentially "arguing by trick."

The most common way I see people use dictionaries correctly, is to provide their own understanding of a word to the person saying it, so that they can WORK OUT what each other are intending to say. And once they agree about what is actually being said, then they can get down to arguing about the actual points being made.

If someone does insist on their own meanings for words, that's fine, but they will have to accept in turn, that since no one else will know what they are saying, that it will be very difficult for them to get a hearing for their ideas.

The process I have come to find best, utilizing sources such as dictionaries and thesauruses, is to use them to help those discussing something, to agree on terms, and THEN start bashing each other over the head with whatever LOGIC they want to follow.

If they fail to agree on the meanings of terms first, the rest of the discussion ends up being entirely pointless. Unfortunately, I have run into lots of people who eventually make it clear that their intent is not to argue logically after all, but simply to try to get away with defining themselves as being right, through manipulation of terminology, or refusal to use the same meaning for their own terms, throughout their argument.

But the most common game that I see played, is to make an error in LOGIC, and try to prove that it is not an error, by adjusting or hiding the logical error behind confused definitions of terms. Common example, someone correctly details examples of misbehavior by an entity; then claims that this proves that whatever labels are attached to the entity, are thereby proven to be the source of the misbehavior. The logical error, is to reverse the process of definitions first, declaring that the definition of an ideal is established by the behaviors of those claiming to act on it (not by it's own internal logic); and then once this reversal is in place, they declare that the ideal itself is therefore defective. Christianity is redefined as bad, not because any of it's tenets are examined and found to be inconsistent or negative, but because some people claiming to be Christian, have misbehaved very badly: the person arguing first claims that Christianity is defined by it's adherents, and then tries to state that therefore any time someone uses the label "Christianity," that they are referring to people who misbehave.

It is the logic which fails, but the dictionary which is blamed, or used as a foil.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#7  Postby don't get me started » Jun 04, 2014 7:00 am

I'm on my way home just now (rush hour in Osaka) so I can't really go into detail, but my initial post was based upon the thread in news politic and current affairs regarding the word ' defeat' in Taliban defeat America.
The OP used a dictionary to define the word 'defeat' and the quoted definition referred to armed conflict, sporting competitions and the like....as if they were the same kind of thing.
Defeat in Sport involves the common adherence to rules and acceptance of the decisions of a non-participating official who has sole power to adjudicate on matters of scoring, timekeeping and fouls.
Defeat in war is not of this nature but is something else entirely... There is no official, timekeeping, scoring etc.
other languages may have different words to differentiate between the two senses of the word, but English does not.

I'll expand more once I get off this train...
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#8  Postby Thommo » Jun 04, 2014 7:11 am

I found that one as I browsed through looking for examples and I completely agree with you in that case.

On the other hand I think Cavarka's English is quite poor - it's clearly not his first language, whereas your expertise is clearly far beyond that of a native speaking layman. I can very much see that we might be expected to cut him some slack about word choice, but still disagree with his broad thrust (which was quite hostile towards the west in general) and try to communicate why we find his phraseology misleading, as opposed to wrong. Which, to be fair, I would say you did.

ETA: I followed your advice and read the semantics thread, or at least the thread I believe you're referring to although it did not have exactly that title and found it quite interesting and well written. I'm not sure how much I really get from it as your grasp of English is clearly substantially better than my own.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#9  Postby epepke » Jun 04, 2014 7:31 am

This is largely a useless discussion, as for every instance in which a word is in dispute, there are probably tens of thousands of uses of words (maybe even that word) for which there is no dispute. Unless one is willing to stipulate that all dictionaries are 99.999% perfect, nothing you say about dictionaries in general can be expected to apply to these rare cases.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#10  Postby don't get me started » Jun 04, 2014 8:29 am

Thommo wrote:I found that one as I browsed through looking for examples and I completely agree with you in that case.

On the other hand I think Cavarka's English is quite poor - it's clearly not his first language, whereas your expertise is clearly far beyond that of a native speaking layman. I can very much see that we might be expected to cut him some slack about word choice, but still disagree with his broad thrust (which was quite hostile towards the west in general) and try to communicate why we find his phraseology misleading, as opposed to wrong. Which, to be fair, I would say you did.

ETA: I followed your advice and read the semantics thread, or at least the thread I believe you're referring to although it did not have exactly that title and found it quite interesting and well written. I'm not sure how much I really get from it as your grasp of English is clearly substantially better than my own.


Thank you for your reply Thommo, I'm glad that you found something of interest in the semantics thread I referred to ( to be honest I find writing a difficult task and am never really sure I have done a good job or not.)

As to the original thread that made me post this, I certainly had no intention of bullying the OP by invoking some kind of native speaker privilege, but I thought that the word choice was poor, and wished to express this.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#11  Postby Thommo » Jun 04, 2014 8:32 am

don't get me started wrote:Thank you for your reply Thommo, I'm glad that you found something of interest in the semantics thread I referred to ( to be honest I find writing a difficult task and am never really sure I have done a good job or not.)

As to the original thread that made me post this, I certainly had no intention of bullying the OP by invoking some kind of native speaker privilege, but I thought that the word choice was poor, and wished to express this.


Sorry, I didn't mean to imply you did. I don't really agree with what he said there and felt your explanation was actually very good as to why the thread title is almost inevitably going to be considered misleading. The caution is as much for my own benefit as anyone's.
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Re: Dictionaries and dictionary usage

#12  Postby don't get me started » Jun 04, 2014 8:36 am

epepke wrote:This is largely a useless discussion, as for every instance in which a word is in dispute, there are probably tens of thousands of uses of words (maybe even that word) for which there is no dispute. Unless one is willing to stipulate that all dictionaries are 99.999% perfect, nothing you say about dictionaries in general can be expected to apply to these rare cases.


I'm sorry that you feel so... I am very interested in the way language is actually used in interaction, and trouble sources and their subsequent repair are a very common phenomenon in spoken, and to a lesser extent written language. I was mainly addressing the repair process, that is the invocation of the dictionary, and its possible shortcomings, rather than any particular word.
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