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  • Michael Rundell seems to pose the standard false dichotomy of English ‘as it is spoken’ (by the full range of intellect and literacy) versus ‘correct’ English (implying impractical academics and their like), but there is a real problem when the cost is ineffective communication based on the lowest common denominator of pronunciation and meaning. Like a broken rudder and sail, any tendency for pronunciation guides to express unstressed vowels as a schwa, and definitions to encourage misuse just because it is use of some kind does society & culture & industry a disservice. That said, and given the limitations of even careful language to transfer the subtlety of crude or ephemeral thought from one human to another, dictionaries are one of the most powerful tools we have as a literate species for sharing meaning, intent, and understanding with the universal tokens of speech and writing, across distance and time.

  • Thanks JB. This brings us back to the question of what the role of the dictionary is or ought to be. If I understand you rightly, you’re suggesting there is a danger that if dictionaries merely report usage, they risk encouraging ‘misuse’ (e.g. by including definitions of meanings which some people consider wrong, such as the ‘irritate’ sense of aggravate). As a dictionary naimed mainly at learners of English, we feel a duty to warn users that certain usages are disapproved of, as in this note at the entry for less: ‘In informal English, less is often found with plural nouns, but many people consider this to be incorrect’. And we label some usages (like innit) as ‘very informal’, as an indication that they wouldn’t be appropriate in many (or even most) situations. So we avoid being judgemental but flag up potential pitfalls. What lexicographers dislike most, however, are ‘made-up’ rules with no rational basis, like the injunction against splitting infinitives or using ‘hopefully’ in its most usual meaning.