12 Awesome Language Resources for the Word Nerd
I’m an unabashed word nerd. I majored in English and have been a high school English teacher for almost 30 years. I run an online program helping homeschoolers develop writing skills, and I manage this wordy blog and a wordy Facebook page. I have become, over the years, something of an expert on grammar and usage, but it’s not due to any particular cleverness on my part. I have simply learned how to ask good questions and find reliable answers.
Here are a dozen of my favorite resources.
I own three fat dictionaries, and on just about every word question, I consult all three. Dictionaries aren’t the same, you know. They don’t always agree on words to include or on their definitions. Some list definitions according to what uses are most common. Others list them according to when they first appeared. If you are serious about words, get yourself at least a couple good dictionaries and get to know them. Here are my current favorites:
1. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th Edition), 2014
The first Webster’s Dictionary was published in 1928. The Collegiate version is in some ways a direct descendent, even though Merriam-Webster has been a subsidiary of Encyclopedia Britannica since 1964.
The last unabridged dictionary published by Merriam-Webster is their rather controversial Third New International Dictionary of the English Language that was published in 1961. They began work on a fourth edition in 2008, but there’s no word on when it will be done. I will certainly purchase a copy when they do.
In the meantime, they keep revising their abridged but useful Collegiate Dictionary–now in it’s 11th iteration.
2. The American-Heritage Dictionary (5th Edition), 2011
The American-Heritage Dictionary is noticeably more conservative and prescriptive than the Merriam-Webster. It therefore provides a good contrast. The AHD isn’t as quick to accept new usages or include neologisms.
I particularly like the many usage notes included in this Dictionary. They reference surveys of distinguished Usage Panels convened every few years to vote on controversial areas of usage.
3. The New Oxford American Dictionary (3rd Edition) 2010
Like the American-Heritage, the New Oxford American calls itself unabridged and includes numerous helpful usage notes. Oxford is in England, of course, but this dictionary focuses on American usage, which differs in numerous ways.
4. The Oxford English Dictionary (http://www.oed.com)
The OED is one of the most famed and impressive books ever created. The first edition was published in 1884 after twenty-seven years of labor by hundreds of contributors. It was republished in 1928 in ten volumes and again in 1933 in twelve volumes. This massive tome attempts to list every word ever used in English with examples of their earliest uses in publication. It’s an amazing, fascinating book and an invaluable resource for word lovers.
The second edition was published in 1989. It consisted of twenty volumes and 21,728 pages! You can also purchase a massive two-volume version that comes with a magnifying glass to make the tiny text legible.
Fortunately, there is now also an online version. It is awesome. Every word is easily searchable. It’s not free though–you need a subscription to access it.
For questions of grammar, you need a reliable usage dictionary. I’ve got three for the same reason I have three dictionaries–they take slightly different approaches and often offer different opinions. The Merriam-Webster is by far the most descriptivist of the three, but it’s my favorite because it is also the best researched. The MWDEU does more than offer subjective opinion on controversial matters of English usage. It provides evidence taken from publications and summarizes previously published opinions.
6. Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage
Fowler’s is a respected usage dictionary that has been around a long time. His original book, published in 1926 is considered by many to be the definitive usage book ever published. Winston Churchill required his officials to read it. A second edition, edited by Ernest Gowers, was published in 1965. The third edition, with major updates, appeared in 1996, revised by Robert W. Burchfield. The one I have is the fourth edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield, published in 2015. The more recent versions of the book contain more research and are less dependent on Mr. Fowler’s erudite opinion, but it’s still more prescriptive than the Merriam-Webster.
Fowler’s also comes from a predominantly British perspective.
Bryan A. Garner’s work is the most recent of the three. It’s also distinctly American. Garner published the first edition in 1998, the second five years later, and the third one in 2009. I own the most recent one.
Like the other two usage dictionaries, Garner’s is fun to read. Seriously. He offers more firm opinions than even the recent Fowler, but the book also makes note of language changes. In fact, my favorite part of the book is the “Language-Change Index” which scores words and expressions that are in the process of change along the following scale:
2: Widely shunned
3: Widespread but…
4: Ubiquitous but…
5: Fully accepted.
Garner also places an asterisk beside words he deems “invariably inferior.” Of course, the downfall of this system is that language change continues and these scores become outdated quickly. For example, he scores the adjective use of fun–as in “that was a fun trip”–a 3 and the inflected forms funner and funnest a 2. I would argue that fun as an adjective is now fully accepted and funner and funnest should be a 3 on its way to a 4.
Style guides are different from usage dictionaries. They deal with more minutiae like capitalization rules and citation formatting. They are still important, however, especially for academic work. Unlike usage dictionaries, they are boring reference books. Boring but necessary.
The CMS is a reference manual for editors and publishers of books–mostly academic and some mass market works.
9. AP Stylebook
The Associate Press Stylebook is used by journalists and newspaper editors.
The Modern Language Associate Handbook includes style and citation rules for academic papers in the humanities.
I use the web in all kinds of ways. There are numerous blogs that I reference often. I’ll have to do another article on that topic at a later date. Here are two amazing tools that I use often.
11. Google N-Gram Viewer
I’ve spent (wasted?) countless hours looking at N-gram charts. Google provides this fascinating tool that surveys thousands of published works going back to 1800 and providing data on the frequency of words. You can search for any word to see how often it appears over time. And you can make fascinating comparisons. Here’s an example comparing toward and towards in English publications (both British and American). This just scratches the surface of the kind of data this site can provide.
There are plenty of ways to use Google too, but one common strategy is to search for words to see how often they appear in searches. It’s a quick though unscientific way to see how common words appear on the web–a less regulated and more free market medium than books and print publications. Funner, for example, appears much more frequently in a Google search than it does in an N-gram search. We can assume from this that popular use hasn’t yet had much influence on more formal edited prose.
There you go. Twelve great resources for researching word-related issues. Have fun!
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