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That Most Ill-Defined Book: Problems with Labeling the Dictionary in Educated Writing


Central to the purpose of a dictionary is the proposal of clear and distinctive definitions of terms. While the art of lexicography is such that different dictionaries arrive at definitions with distinct wording or emphasis, this fact may be lost on most users of the dictionary. In this paper I examine to what extent users treat dictionaries as more or less interchangeable items, through their selection and usage of definitions in formal essays and dissertations.

In particular, I treat individuals' use of dictionary definitions in Master's theses, doctoral theses, and scholarly journal articles as representative of their understanding of the individuality and applicability of different dictionary entries. I find that these highly educated writers (who might be expected to be expert users of the dictionary) explicitly reference the dictionary in one of four ways: (1) as indefinite entity (e.g. 'the dictionary'); (2) vaguely titled ('Webster's dictionary'); (3) date or edition irrelevant ('The American Heritage dictionary'); (4) fully cited and explained. Preliminary findings indicate that a large proportion of this educated population who cite dictionaries in writing fail to distinguish between notably distinct works. I also examine in what ways educational level and academic field does or does not predict one's skill at dictionary reference, citation, and application.

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