browse channels
  • The dictionary that keeps on growing: grammar and linguistics

    Posted by on August 05, 2015

    © GETTYIn his recent post, Michael announced that the latest update of the Macmillan Dictionary features a substantial revision of the grammatical and linguistics entries. These constitute the metalanguage of English – all the words and phrases used to talk about how our language works. They include word classes like verb and noun, larger units like prepositional phrase and clause, functions like subject and object, and a diverse collection of other concepts, from alliteration to zeugma, involved in understanding how we create, classify, and name meanings.

    I’ll briefly outline some of the principles behind my revision of the linguistics terms so far.

    Definitions had to be consistent across the dictionary. This is incredibly difficult: there is no single ‘grammar’ out there, and little consensus on the units to be described or the terminology used to describe them. Basic terms like noun group and noun phrase, adjunct and adverbial, subordinate clause and dependent clause are rooted in different grammatical theories, and ‘mean’ different things accordingly.

    For users, the underlying grammatical and linguistic theory is invisible. But it must be available through the definitions, not least because many of them explain grammar in terms of other grammar – how could they do otherwise? At predicative, you find ‘an adjective is predicative when it follows a linking verb such as be or seem’. Now linking verb means roughly the same as the older term copula, but copula smacks of discredited Latin-based accounts of English, and modern dictionaries quietly reject it. At the entry for copula, you are simply redirected to the more user-friendly linking verb. So while the dictionary includes a motley collection of not-quite-synonymous terms, one internally consistent set has been chosen and prioritized throughout.

    Conciseness was essential – nothing new there! Linguistics terms can be quite complicated, but explanations still have to fit snugly into a nutshell. However unlimited the space available in an electronic resource, no one wants to know everything there is to know about a participle or a preposition or a personal pronoun: this is a dictionary not a countryside ramble.

    But, and this is the cheery bit, examples help enormously, and there are now far more of them than in previous releases. Linguistics examples differ from the norm in an important way, in that they rarely contain the headword at all. Take the entry for object complement: the examples don’t illustrate how people use the term; after all it’s not usually bandied about in public. Instead part or all of an example IS an object complement, grammatically speaking. After the definition, you find:

    For example, in the sentences Everyone considered the project a success and The window was left open, the object complements are a success and open.

    Examples are often crucial in understanding a term. The entry for past participle is typical, where the examples echo the ordering of the definition:

    in English, the ‘-ed’ form of a verb, that is used for forming the perfect tenses, in the passive, and as a modifier. For example, in the sentences Have you eaten yet?, Payment must be made immediately, and Do you like fried fish?, the words eaten, made and fried are all past participles.

    The principle then, is that more and better examples allow for more accurate, economical definitions.

    Examples must do their job without being too complex or technical, and without sounding dull, lifeless, or unnatural. So I’ve also tried to introduce a greater variety of sentence types in addition to the subject-verb-object uniformity of traditional examples. See for instance the imperative example at phrasal verb: Don’t tell me how to bring up my children!, the compound sentence at predicative: She was right and I was wrong, and the question form at pronoun: Do you know what Linda told me? She’s such a liar. This reflects the variety of real language.

    There is also a wider vocabulary range; older examples often tend to recall the musty, dusty atmosphere of an old-fashioned schoolroom, where children are forever borrowing each other’s pens, putting random objects on tables, arriving late for class, or standing in the playground throwing generic balls at each other. Sadly, ‘grammar’ everywhere is still haunted by this image – why I can’t say – so I’ve tried to add more natural, up-to-date corpus examples to help dispel it.

    A word of caution: the process of updating the linguistics entries is ongoing, and there are several more revisions and additions lining up impatiently for inclusion in the next update. And as linguists take ever new and better approaches to understanding text, discourse, and language use in general, I can think of plenty more terms for which there are no valid exclusion criteria. Add them all, I’d say (had we but world enough, and time*) and if you don’t like them, don’t click on them!

    *Andrew Marvell, English poet (1621-1678), To His Coy Mistress.

    Email this Post Email this Post

    Comment Here (0)
View all posts
  • It’s a libfix-aganza!

    In his report on the new updates to Macmillan Dictionary, Michael Rundell discussed the increasingly popular and productive term -mageddon, as in carmageddon and snowmageddon. Each such coinage invokes, by analogy with the others and with the original word Armageddon, ‘the idea of something bad occurring on a large scale and causing chaos or destruction’. […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 31st July, 2015

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: achieve

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of  language tips we look at how metaphor is used to express some common concepts in English. This week’s tip looks at metaphors used to talk about achieving something: Something you achieve is like a […]

    Read the full article
  • The dictionary that keeps on growing

    The latest update of the Macmillan Dictionary went live last week, and it includes 146 new words. On top of that, 25 existing words have gained new meanings, and we’ve made over 130 other changes – updating or improving definitions, adding “new” alternative pronunciations, and so on. The dictionary keeps on growing. We’ve talked before […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 24th July, 2015

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: state

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. These tips are usually based on areas of English which learners find difficult, e.g. spelling, grammar, collocation, synonyms, usage, etc. This week’s language tip helps with the differences in meaning of state in American and British English. In […]

    Read the full article
  • Tracking the emergence of new words across time and space

    A few weeks ago, we were lucky enough to receive a visit from Jack Grieve, a researcher and lecturer from Aston University, England, who delivered a fascinating presentation: Tracking the emergence of new words across time and space, examining the emergence of new words on Twitter. Intrigued by what he had to say, Henry decided […]

    Read the full article
  • Finding fault in the right places

    A common way to discuss what is correct or appropriate or not in English is by pointing out shortcomings in other people’s usage. This practice has a long tradition in language commentary and pedagogy, and while it can be helpful and enlightening, it’s not always constructive. Not only in the sense that people frequently misidentify […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 17th July, 2015

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article
  • Language tip of the week: life

    In this weekly post, we bring more useful content from the Macmillan Dictionary to English language learners. In this series of  language tips we look at how metaphor is used to express some common concepts in English. This week’s tip looks at metaphors used to talk about life: Life is like a journey, and your […]

    Read the full article
  • Open Dictionary Word of the Month: icy pole

    Following the integration of the Open Dictionary into Macmillan Dictionary earlier this year, we thought it was time to celebrate again the success of our crowdsourced dictionary. This series of posts will highlight the contribution made by our worldwide band of contributors by picking out some of the most interesting submissions made to the Open […]

    Read the full article
  • Language and words in the news – 10th July, 2015

    This post contains a selection of links related to language and words in the news. These can be items from the latest news, blog posts or interesting websites related to global English, language change, education in general, and language learning and teaching in particular. Feel free to contact us if you would like to submit a link […]

    Read the full article

Recent Comments

Recent Comments
  • Posted by Stan Carey to Finding fault in the right places on July 28, 2015 More on this from John E. McIntyre: "Being an English major does not license you to be a prig."

  • Posted by Stan Carey to Finding fault in the right places on July 23, 2015 That's a good point, Andy. It's a form of false equivalence to use poetry to back up grammatical claims. Citing Shakespeare can also mislead simply because grammatical and other linguistic norms change, and what was appropriate centuries ago isn't necessarily so today. In arguing about the legitimacy of a usage in modern English, there's nothing wrong with referring to Shakespeare alongside other works from difference contexts and times, but the argument oughtn't to be based on...

  • Posted by Andy Hollandbeck to Finding fault in the right places on July 22, 2015 It's not just errors, either. The same type of problem can exist when people choose examples to show to "prove" that something is acceptable, too. I'm always skeptical when someone cites a poet's work as a usage example. In poetry, grammar and usage can be trumped by any number of things — rhythm, meter, rhyme, sound. So sometimes we see arguments like "Shakespeare did X, so X must be good usage." A (very) little research can then...

  • Posted by chaminda to Life skills tip of the week: ways of saying hello on July 20, 2015 excellent presentation and greatly helpful for non-native English speakers. thank you and expecting more of this nature day to day important hints.

  • Posted by Alfie to Real Grammar: a few concluding thoughts on July 15, 2015 Thanks for the Real Grammar blog and thanks for this brilliant l post on misguided prescriptivism that, as you rightly point out, goes unchallenged and is, unfortunately, kept up by English teachers and journalists alike. I do really enjoy reading your articles so well done and I'll be looking forward to reading them again in September. Keep it up!