A learner’s dictionary is a Swiss army knife

A learner’s dictionary is a Swiss army knife
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sun, Oct 25 2009. 11 27 PM IST

Updated: Sun, Oct 25 2009. 11 27 PM IST
Network is a word that keeps popping up on my computer screen. It is a widely known word and its meaning in this context is “a set of computers connected to one another”. But here is a rather unusual definition of the word from the 18th century: “network: anything reticulated or decussated, with interstices between the intersections.” Very helpful, indeed! It comes from Dr Johnson’s dictionary. That same dictionary defines “cough” as “a convulsion of the lungs, vellicated by some sharp serosity”. Despite such examples of the quirks and quiddities of Dr Johnson’s genius, his dictionary remains an extremely valuable book. For 150 years his was the pre-eminent British dictionary.
What is a dictionary? Dictio in Latin means word; a dictionary is then a collection of words with their meanings. In German it is called Worterbuch, a book of words. Russian has the name, slovaar, from slovo which means “word”. People generally look upon the dictionary as an extended lexicon or glossary of words and meanings.
This limited perception underrates the value of the book. Today we have two types of dictionaries. The old type of dictionary is for the use of native speakers, and aims at scholarship and accuracy. The other type, the learner’s dictionary (LD), aims at helping non-native speakers learn the language. The first and still most widely used LD is the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary of Current English, published 60 years ago. Those who seriously want to learn English and attain a reasonable degree of proficiency in it should turn to these LDs.
Most people who buy dictionaries make use of only about a fifth of the resources available in them. Two parts of a dictionary are of paramount importance. These are the definitions of words and illustrative examples of the use of words.
Definitions in learner’s dictionaries are carefully composed. An LD never defines one word using a more difficult word. Definitions are formed using a limited defining vocabulary of about 3000 words. For example, a scholarly dictionary may define sky as “the vault of heaven, firmament”: an LD has the definition, “space above the trees and buildings and landscape which we see when we look up.” Older dictionaries defined “tear” as “saline watery fluid continually secreted by the lachrymal glands etc.” An LD defines it as “drop of liquid that comes from your eye, esp. when you cry”.
Besides giving the meaning of a word, an LD shows the user how a word fits into a structure by providing examples of usage. This part is vital for the learner. To take an example, a verb that Indian learners often misuse is “suggest”; they write sentences such as “My teacher suggested me to join the team”. Words such as asked, requested, commanded, ordered, compelled, directed and told fit into this pattern; suggested stands apart. Suggest can be used in two patterns. In one, it is followed by a that-clause (suggested that I should join the team); in the other, by a noun phrase (suggested my joining the team).
Similar entries in the LD show us that the following constructions are not acceptable: It is high time you tell him the truth... With a view to reduce the expenditure... The correct forms are “told him the truth” and ”reducing the expenditure”. You can check the correctness of the following expressions by looking at the examples given in the LD. The encyclopedia comprises of three volumes. I cannot cope up with this stress. He availed of the opportunity... The correct structures are: comprises three volumes; cannot cope with this stress; availed himself of the opportunity. These examples help the learner understand the basic structure of sentences.
The usage note is another important feature of a modern LD. When a major supermarket put up a notice which read “10 items or less” at the cash counter, there were protests at this “ungrammatical” use of “less”. When referring to numbers, “fewer” should be used, not “less”, said the purists. The store changed the words to “Up to 10 items”. The usage notes in modern LDs can be useful to those who have attained some degree of proficiency and are sensitive to the niceties of usage. Some of the points raised in the usage notes are: Is “data” singular or plural? Is “different than” acceptable? How does “infer” differ from “imply”? How does “disinterested” differ from “uninterested”? Can we use “their” in “Everyone should mind their business.” Should “than” be followed by me or I?
Definitions of words, examples of correct sentence patterns and usage notes are the parts of the dictionary most useful to learners. An LD also contains labels showing region, formality or subject, word histories and synonyms. The storage of such a mass of information in minimum space is a task that the lexicographer always grapples with. The learner’s task is to retrieve information he requires and can use. A learner’s dictionary is indeed a Swiss army knife; the learner has to decide which function he wants to make use of.
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent at plainspeaking@livemint.com
Comment E-mail Print Share
First Published: Sun, Oct 25 2009. 11 27 PM IST