In praise of a reference book: MWDEU

My enthusiasm for The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (MWDEU), which I hereby declare, will make immediate sense to those who refer to it in their own investigations of English usage. To the majority, who are more likely never to have heard of it, or then only in passing, such enthusiasm may seem idiosyncratic or downright nerdy. So be it.

The uninitiated can, if it helps, think of MWDEU as a classic of its kind, though its profile is much lower than that of Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style or Fowler’s A Dictionary of Modern English Usage, which are often iconically shortened to Strunk & White and Fowler, respectively. To summarise what MWDEU offers I can do no better than its editor E. Ward Gilman, whose preface says it:

examines and evaluates common problems of confused or disputed usage from two perspectives: that of historical background, especially as shown in the great historical dictionaries, and that of present-day usage, chiefly as shown by evidence in the Merriam-Webster files.

mwdeu-sThat it does this in such a thorough and unbiased way is what elevates MWDEU so far above the ordinary. Each entry is presented in a much broader context than is typically the case in books that advise on English usage and style. Take for example its short entry on insightful:

This relatively new adjective (first recorded in 1907) has lately become something of a minor irritant to a few usage commentators, who have described it variously as ‘journalese’ (Zinsser 1976), ‘a suspicious overstatement for “perceptive”’ (Strunk & White 1979) and ‘jargon’ (Janis 1984). Dictionaries, on the other hand, routinely treat it as an ordinary, inoffensive word. Its use is common and has been for several decades. Here is a representative sampling of the ways in which it is used…

All language reference books have their blind spots, prejudices and unconscious axioms, and MWDEU has been criticised for being too liberal, too prevaricating, too descriptivist. These criticisms are fair, but they pale in comparison to what the book supplies: great and balanced content in abundance, and no dogmatic prohibitions or intolerant admonishments. Alongside each word and phrase we get a historical overview of its usage, interpretation and application; clear and astute analysis; and repeated advice to judge for oneself.

The lasting impression is of being treated without condescension as a person with the good sense to assess the evidence and arguments and to make up one’s own mind. MWDEU does not hector its readers with shoulds, oughts, musts and don’t-even-think-about-its. There are neither emotional outbursts nor emotive appeals. Since English usage is, has been and is likely to remain a hotbed of contention, MWDEU’s polite and level tone is as refreshing as its broadminded counsel is constructive.

study-in-scarletTo paraphrase Thomas Aquinas, beware the grammarian of one reference book – especially if that book is The Elements of Style. In any edition, EoS is an eminently useful book: it is short, direct and efficient, and it has plenty of good advice. It is also rather simplistic and occasionally self-contradictory. It positively quivers with imperious finger wagging, which has helped fuel decades of ill-judged fussiness. Its tight, parsimonious rules, useful in their way, have unfortunately been adopted by some readers as universal commandments.

In a sense it is unfair to compare EoS, a short style guide, with MWDEU, a hefty usage dictionary. But the former remains so popular, and the latter so comparatively unknown, that I wanted to do my bit to redress the balance; and I find their antithetical attitudes interesting and worthy of examination.

If in writing something you are racing the clock, consulting MWDEU might not be in your best interest, since it doesn’t provide yes/no answers but rather opens one can of worms after another. For this reason it is less likely to be favoured by journalists, or anyone who prefers a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Those with more time on their hands, and indeed anyone with an interest in the history of the English language, could not fail to appreciate its contents, which are lucid, informative and entertaining.

To appeal to authority I’ll cite Geoffrey K. Pullum, a linguistics professor at the University of Edinburgh and contributor to the Language Log blog, who described MWDEU as “the finest work of scholarship on English grammar and usage I have ever seen, in thirty years of doing research on English grammar”. The book also comes in concise and pocket editions, which are shorter but newer; i.e., they are not just abridged editions. Best of all, at least for those of you persuaded by my zeal, MWDEU is now online. Should you prefer a physical book, you are likely to find it excellent value. Happy reading!

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16 Responses to In praise of a reference book: MWDEU

  1. Claudia says:

    I will never betray Strunk and White who saved my life when I was drowning but Thomas Aquinas had much wisdom. I wouldn’t call myself a grammarian but it’s time to visit a new territory.I’ll get MWDEU. Presently, I rely a lot on Roget’s Thesaurus although it often tends to confuse me. I just looked at ‘insightful’ and I get nearly 200 hundred meanings, if not more. It’s fun but it would be hard to make a choice. My Dictionary is Webster Third New International Edition. It’s so huge that it has its own permanent table. I use a pocket dictionary most of the time!

    I had written an amusing story in ‘The Elements of Style’. At a party, a lady who wanted to show off her knowledge went over to George Bernard Shaw and said, “Do you know that there is only one word in the English language that begins with ‘su’ but sounds like ‘sh’? That word is sugar.” Shaw looked at her for a moment and replied, “Are you sure?”

    Thanks for your help. I would appreciate any correction if needed.

  2. Stan says:

    Good old Shaw! Coincidentally I watched Michael Palin portray him last night.

    Roget’s Thesaurus has its uses, but being a dictionary is not one of them. Oxford University Press probably publish the definitive dictionaries, and their compact edition is searchable online. Other good ones are Cambridge, American Heritage, Macmillan, and Merriam-Webster (not the usage dictionary).

    If you do get MWDEU, I hope you get as much from it as I have. Presumably you had a look at the online version to assess its usefulness. After writing about it yesterday I ordered the pocket edition, because I love the size and convenience of pocket dictionaries, and I couldn’t resist the idea of a portable MWDEU!

  3. unstranger says:

    I agree. I came across a copy of a not so used Merriam-Webster in a local second hand book shop and bought it immediately. €25. It is always a good experience to search within its pages.

  4. Stan says:

    Unstranger: Glad I’m not the only one! I picked up my copy in a local second-hand bookshop too, and if I saw another copy I would buy it for someone else.

  5. What a brilliant book! After looking through the online version, I am maddened by the absence of a real, physical copy from my shelves, as it strikes me as the ideal book for opening at random and being surprised by new and unusual words. Even going through it online I learned that, while ‘abysm’ (a lovely word) has fallen out of use in favour of ‘abyss’, we tend to use ‘abysmal’ rather than ‘abyssal’. A wordhound’s delight!

  6. Stan says:

    Doubtful: Your lack of doubt regarding this book does you credit. Everything you say about it is true, and if I had another copy, your enthusiasm would make you a leading candidate to receive it. Alternatively, there’s the immediate option.

    I think I should shill for Merriam-Webster.

  7. [...] because of their prominence in posts dedicated to them, such as however, principal, quality, and mwdeu. Others appear because they feature a few times in a set phrase, such as death in Blue Screen of [...]

  8. Claudia says:

    MWDEU is in my hands. I couldn’t find it in bookstores. My son ordered it from Chapters, through the Internet. A gift for Easter. I rushed the dinner, so he could leave soon. He didn’t mind. He knew I wanted to examine the book at length. I just looked to see if it was right to say ‘so’. It is! I was never sure about this.

    On the bag, in which the book came, was printed a line from John Keats, “Give me books, fruit, French wine, fine weather, and a little music…” The poor young man didn’t have very long to enjoy the few things he asked for. At least, he knew what truly matters. I’m so fortunate that I don’t need much more to have a happy day. And, even if the weather does not cooperate, holding my new book more than compensate…Thank you for praising it.

  9. Stan says:

    What a fine gift to receive – and to give! I wish you many happy hours of reading, checking, and dipping. Keats did not have very long, but as you say: he knew what mattered. His few years, lived intensely, surely swelled in felt experience, and his ideas and words have echoed through the centuries.

  10. I believe I have a fairly sound grasp of the English language, and I’m always very happy to learn more. Especially when it comes to origins of words & the appropriate use of same. It’s something I find quite fascinating.

    Thanks for drawing my attention to this great resource, I will make a note to remember it & return to it for advice in the future.

    I like, as you pointed it, it’s absence of “Shoulds” etc.
    Although I do recognise it is important to be aware of correct usage, I also understand that Language, by it’s very nature is ever changing, and developing. To be dogmatic about the use of language, I think is to miss the point.

    I arrived here (to this blog) after asking about the use of the word “Bring”, which I’m now reliably informed, by yourself & Twitter that ordinarily the use of the word Bring would indicate that the person/object is moving towards one, and “Take” would be appropriate use when the object/person is moving away from one self.

    It’s interesting as I think I’ve picked up the use of the word from the Irish-(I was born in England & lived in Dublin for the last 8 years).
    Last night I said to my nephew (In England) “Can you bring this into the kitchen for me please?” when my sister pointed out, it ought to be “Can you take this into the kitchen for me please?”
    Although it irks me to admit that strictly speaking, she’s right ;) I still defend my use of the word as colloquially it was appropriate (If I was in Ireland). However, as I’ll be spending more & more time in England, it seems it would be prudent to modify my language & use “Take” rather than bring in this context.

    I believe it’s appropriate to use the language that one feels one can express oneself the most adequately. However, it is always prudent to be aware of one’s audience.

    It is because of my awareness of how those around me use language that I had picked up & adopted this way of using the word “Bring” into my regularly use of language in the first place.

    I’ve been in England since the 18th Jan and I have noticed the last few days that I have started to pick up the intonations of the local accent.

    I’m sure it won’t be long before I pick up colloquialisms also. Already, from this discussion & the feedback I’ve received on Twitter I know I’m likely to begin to use the word “Take” rather than “Bring”.

  11. Stan says:

    Hello Claire, thanks for your visit and your interesting comment. I’m glad you found the book helpful — outside of certain circles it’s a little-known gem! Whenever I’m unsure or curious about a point of usage, I consult several sources and often find that MWDEU provides an invaluable historical perspective, showing how both usage and commentary change constantly.

    There is obviously a grey area in the case of bring and take, but you could make a fair argument for bring if you anticipated being in the kitchen later in order to make use of the object. I wouldn’t be unduly concerned about which is more “proper”, except in certain formal contexts, but you make a good point about being aware of one’s audience, and geography often plays a part.

    Rules and logic only take one so far, and in colloquial speech I think it’s more important to preserve colour and character than strict grammar. As for the influence of Irish and Irish-English, you might be interested in T. P. Dolan’s entry for bring in his Hiberno-English archive.

  12. [...] sure to remain a passionate pastime for many people. As I wrote in a post about the (descriptivist) Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage, people sometimes prefer a short, definitive answer even at the expense of context. Prescriptivist [...]

  13. Stephen Calder says:

    I have a copy of the English Usage Dictionary because I’m a professional writer with an intense interest in language and usage. I was sceptical about it until I dipped into it deeply and found it just as useful, enlightening, broad and unbiased as you say. If you think it’s not well known in the US, it’s even less so here in Australia; nevertheless I would not be without it. I just wanted to let you know that as well as being a great book on US English it travels well and caters for English speakers everywhere. Thanks for letting people know.

  14. Stan says:

    Glad to hear from another fan of the book, Stephen! I don’t know how well known it is in the U.S.; I would guess that it has considerable renown (or notoriety) in certain circles, e.g. among editors, linguists, lexicographers, philologists, and usage experts and enthusiasts, but that to the general public its profile is modest to non-existent. I agree that it travels well — I’m writing from the west coast of Ireland, and even here I find it indispensable!

  15. Ray Girvan says:

    MWDEU is now online

    Aargh! – it’s gone. I haven’t so far been able to find out why.

    • Stan says:

      Ray: I’m told the problem appears to be on Google Books’ end. So maybe MWDEU will be returned to full view in due course. Let’s hope so.

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