linguistics and lexicography Love English

The dictionary that keeps on growing: grammar and linguistics

© 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.

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Gill Francis

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