Don’t blame the dictionaries

SODOne of the downsides of having lived a lot longer than I ever expected to live is that, when it comes to language, I find that I am displaying more and more ‘grumpy old man’ traits.

Whenever I see a sign suggesting that this is a checkout for 12 items or less, I find myself muttering ‘Fewer, you fool!  Less is for stuff that can’t be counted.  Less sand; but fewer grains of sand.’

And don’t get me started on (to my mind) the mis-use of ‘anticipated’.  When I see or hear someone writing or talking about the ‘much anticipated’ new album by The Intergalactic Sparrows (for example) I find my heart going out to whomever has been charged with the task of mitigating the event’s effects.

And then, just this afternoon, I heard a woman on the radio grumbling about the use of the word resilience.

Apparently, for the best part of a year, she had found the phrase ‘resilience strategy’ ‘particularly grating’.  But, once she had looked up the ‘dictionary definition’ of resilience, she decided that she was a little more comfortable with it.  Her dictionary had spoken.

One part of me was pleased (for her, anyway).  Another part of me was anything but pleased.

Despite that fact that, as a writer and editor, I find myself referring to dictionaries several times a day, I also recognise that most modern dictionaries are descriptive rather than prescriptive.  They record how people use words; they do not prescribe how people should use words.

When – just a few days ago – I heard someone grumbling about how people ‘flaunt the rules’, my grumble should, perhaps, have trumped his.  But he was just using ‘flaunt’ in a way that many people now use it.

Is it ‘correct’?  I don’t think so.  But is it common usage?  Unfortunately it is.

So, don’t blame the dictionaries.  In the end, words mean what people mean them to mean.

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