27 March, 2012
By Erin Brenner
Editors make subjective decisions every day:
Oftentimes, we consult our favorite references—usage guides, dictionaries, and style guides are among the usual suspects—and blindly follow what we read. But print works become outdated so quickly. Does the advice accurately reflect what's happening in language today?
As a living language, English is constantly changing. Or, rather, English speakers and writers are constantly changing the meanings we associate with words and phrases. Our favorite reference books can help keep writing consistent, but if we aren't careful, they can also make writing sound old-fashioned and stale.
That's why I love the internet. Don't get me wrong: I love my print books as much as the next word geek. But the internet allows me to look at how language is being used right now—not how someone wishes it were—and it puts lots of up-to-date expert advice at my fingertips. Combining those two things helps me make the best decisions for any text I'm editing, whether it's a press release, a thoughtful book on how to teach mathematics, or a no-holds-barred blog post.
The following are some of the best online resources for judging how a word or phrase is currently used and by whom.
Some dictionaries are more conservative in their application of language, while others are more liberal. One dictionary may advise that farther and further can still be used interchangeably in some instances, while another will make the case that the terms' definitions have completely diverged. OneLook Dictionary Search helps you check several dictionaries quickly to compare advice.
Usage guides often prescribe how to use the language. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage describes it. Occasionally, it will tell you what to do, but most often it lays out relevant issues, tells you what experts think or how a word is used in specific contexts, and lets you decide what's right for your context.
Sometimes I need to know if a usage is appropriate for its context. For example, a phrase in business writing may not be right for academic writing. To find out, you can search for individual words and phrases in their context. Mark Davies' Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) contains millions of words from speeches, academic works, periodicals, and books from 1990 to 2011. You can search through texts that employ different types of language (registers in sociolinguist-speak) to decide if the usage in question is right for the audience. You can also compare results to other corpora, including the Oxford University Press's British National Corpus (BNC) and Davies' Corpus of Historical American English (COHA).
Slang is hard for a copyeditor to work with. A term can come and go so quickly that it misses being collected by lexicographers, and print collections quickly become outdated. Urban Dictionary is different. Anyone can contribute a definition, and site visitors can vote on the accuracy of each definition. As a result, Urban Dictionary contains the latest slang terms. The multiple definitions, as James Harbeck points out, help to paint a picture of the meaning people attach to the word.
Journalism uses language that's somewhere between casual (e.g. blog posts) and formal (e.g. academic). If a news editor let a questionable usage in, maybe you can too. Google News puts those news editors' decisions at your fingertips.
If a usage is common in books, it's a sign that it's okay to use in writing. Google Books lets you search millions of books; and you can limit your search to contemporary works or trace how a usage has changed over time. Google's Ngram Viewer lets you graph the changes, and Mark Davies' Google Books corpus lets you fine-tune your search for American books published between 1810 and 2009.
I'll never part with my print references, and I often have two or three open at a time. But the internet offers me the tools to get an instant, up-to-date take on language usage, which lets me make the best editing choices for the text in front of me.
Erin Brenner is the editor of Copyediting, proclaiming the art and importance of copyediting in the publishing process. Erin writes and edits for clients through her one-woman show, Right Touch Editing and writes The Writing Resource blog. Follow her on Twitter: @ebrenner.