From my January 27 column on tips for using the dictionary:
Is it “I have drunk my coffee” or “I have drank my coffee”? Do you dissociate from something, or dissociate with it? Does “scallop” rhyme with “gallop” or with “trollop”?
Most people find questions like these downright terrifying. Not only don’t they know the answers, but they have no clue how to find them. When posed with such questions, an intimidated English speaker might assume this is stuff he really should know but doesn’t — that there’s a terrible gap in his education that will never be corrected.
Little does he know that he already holds the answers.
Everyone knows that, when you need a word definition or a spelling, you turn to the dictionary. But the dictionary contains a gold mine of other information for those who know how to decipher it.
Open your dictionary to a verb like “begin” and you’re likely to see, in bold, something like: “begin — began, begun, beginning.” Have you ever stopped to think about what each of these words represents? The answer can unlock some of the language’s best-kept secrets. In most dictionaries, after the base form of an irregular verb come its simple past tense, its past participle and its present or progressive participle.
Don’t let these terms scare you. They’re concepts you already understand. Today I “begin” (present). Yesterday I “began” (simple past tense). In the past, I have “begun” (past participle). Right now I am “beginning” (present participle). They’re that simple, and in every dictionary I’ve seen, they’re listed in that exact order. To make it easier, think of the past participle as the one that goes with “have” or “had.” The present participle is the one that ends in “ing” and works with a form of “to be” such as “is,” “am” or “was.”
So the answer to that lifelong “have drank” versus “have drunk” bugaboo is right at your fingertips. “Webster’s New World College Dictionary” writes: “drank; drunk or now informal drank; drinking.” So the preferred form to use with “have” is “drunk,” although, if you want to be informal, they’ll let you get away with “have drank.”
Dictionaries always list their preferred forms first, so if you want to know whether to write “catalog” or “catalogue,” open your dictionary and you’ll see something like “catalog or catalogue,” which means both spellings are fine but they recommend “catalog.”
Note that, though all dictionaries include “inflections” for irregular verbs, many don’t bother to do so for regular verbs. So if you look up “walk” in many dictionaries, you won’t see “walked, walked, walking” because this word follows a regular, standardized pattern that English speakers should already know.
Pronunciations are a little less user-friendly. All those funny symbols and accents seem so alien to me. Sure, there’s a key at the beginning of your dictionary, but that can be intimidating, too. If you feel the same way, do what I do: Instead of referring to the pronunciation key, look up a word you know how to pronounce and compare its pronunciation to the word you’re checking. That’s how I learned that Webster’s preferred pronunciation of “scallop” rhymes with “trollop,” even though one that rhymes with “gallop” is also acceptable.
Dictionaries often include help with idiomatic constructions. So under “dissociate,” Webster’s offers an example with “dissociate from,” telling you for certain that “from” is a fine choice. Some dictionaries such as “American Heritage” go even further by including extensive notes to shed light on the gray areas of usage.
Of course, your dictionary also contains information on how to use your dictionary. It’s usually right in the front and takes up just a few pages. Invest a little time reading these instructions and you’ll reap the rewards for a lifetime.
Causes June Casagrande Supports
Planned Parenthood, ClimateCrisis.net, the Richard Dawkins Foundation, Pet Orphans of Southern California, KIVA