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Two Essential Guides to American English Get a Makeover—and Word Geeks Rejoice

In the English language, who gets to make the rules? Francophones and Spanish-speakers can look to the Académie Française and the Real Academia Española, respectively, which have been telling right from wrong for centuries, often backed by the force of law. The recent German spelling reform has been fought in parliament, yet the debate over such life-or-death decisions as phasing out the letter ß in favor of double S still rages on. But no such higher authority exists in American English. For the careful writer (and reader), the most we can hope for is dictionaries, usage guides, and stylebooks that address the pressing questions of our age: Is hip-hop one word or two, or should it be hyphenated? Is a preposition an acceptable word to end a sentence with?

Which is why word geeks everywhere are celebrating the near simultaneous publication of Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary and The Chicago Manual of Style in newly revised editions. It would be difficult to overstate the significance of this momentous occasion. With the notable exception of daily newspapers, most periodicals, including the Voice, follow Chicago style or some variation of it. But the influence these two books exert on the language goes far beyond academia and publishing. Jointly, these standbys constitute the most trusted authority on American English. At the very least, their new editions describe the state of our linguistic union and provide a road map to where English is headed.

Forgive the mixed metaphors—they're inevitable. Most linguistic endeavors work at cross-purposes, torn between descriptivists and prescriptivists. In this protracted war of the words, there are no small skirmishes, only major battles. On one side are the more anal-retentive among us, who strive to follow the basic rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation, and believe that a dictionary should clearly tell its users when they are correct and when they are wrong, and who are known as prescriptivists. On the other side are more loosey-goosey folks who acknowledge that a living language is constantly changing, that its rules are merely conventions that evolve with time. They believe a dictionary should only describe the way the language is currently used, and are thus known as descriptivists. If most people use media as singular, descriptivists rhetorically ask, shouldn't it say so in the dictionary? Prescriptivists like to point out that a dictionary is not a democracy. But that particular battle has long been waged and lost; dictionary-making has become the almost exclusive domain of descriptivists, whose knowledge of the language exceeds that of the casual word geek and the occasional reader of William Safire's column—in other words, most prescriptivists. Linguists and lexicographers fancy themselves scientists, and they strive to report their data objectively.

illustration: Carl Dunn

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It's curious how little has changed in Merriam-Webster's methods since the Collegiate's first edition in 1898. Editors would pore over countless periodicals and books, underlining new or interesting uses of words, variant spellings or inflected forms. "The editors of this edition," writes e-in-c Frederick C. Mish in his 2003 preface, "had available to them a machine-readable corpus of over 76,000,000 words of text." Until recently, citations were recorded on 3 x 5 slips, which were then alphabetized in endless rows of filing cabinets, where they remain as reference for future editions. This treasury of 15.7 million citations, used in context, with full bibliography, represents, as associate editor Peter A. Sokolowski explains to the Voice, "the largest body of collected usage evidence in the English language." (By comparison, the 20-volume Oxford English Dictionary's file holds only 1.3 million citations.) A computer database keeps a searchable inventory of the last 20 years' worth of citations, but for older citations, Sokolowski says, "we go to the file cabinets. Because of the wide variety of styles of citations—many in ink from the old days, then a trip through the entire history of photographic reproduction through the decades—it is impractical to scan or key in such a vast number of citation cards." Still, editors print out citations from the database, because they find it easier to handle paper slips.

No surprise, then, to find in the 11th edition a new entry for old-school—"adj (1803) adhering to traditional policies or practices . . . characteristic or evocative of an earlier or original style, manner, or form." But many of the 10,000 entries debuting here have nothing old-school about them. They range from the timely (bioterrorism, burka) to the no longer so (dot-commer, yada yada). Dis, ho, and homey (as in homeboy) are in the house, to represent ("to perform a task or duty admirably: serve as as an outstanding example"), having earned their cred. Word. But yo, no bling-bling? Get real.

Pedants will object, but I'm like, it's so hip it hurts. Take Webster's usage note on like, which not only condones the way it's used in the previous sentence, but manages to trace it etymologically to the 14th century. A more recent coinage, yo reportedly dates from the 15th. And these examples appeared in the previous edition (1993), by which time Webster's had already given up fighting such monstrosities as impact used as a verb, and had stopped caring whether people could tell who from whom. If ain't is OK in their book, why not double negatives? Why not pronounce ask as "ax"? It's listed as a dialectal variant in Webster's. Other variant pronunciations sport an obelus (a division sign) to indicate that they are heard "in educated speech but [are] considered by some to be questionable or unacceptable." Voicing nuclear as "nu-cue-lur," for instance, was sanctioned in the 1993 edition: "Though disapproved of by many . . . [it is] found in widespread use among educated speakers including scientists, lawyers, professors, congressmen, U.S. cabinet members, and at least one U.S. president and one vice president." That usage note remains intact in the new edition, except to add the current president. Sure, it sounds real edumacated.

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