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I really wasn't just trying to be difficult about the American Heritage dictionary. You called it "a SECOND and completely respectable source . . . "

Well--I'm sorry, but it really isn't. Or let me amend that: I don't know about it any more, but it's certainly true that it hasn't always been. There was a book that I was once forced to read entitled "Dictionaries and THAT Dictionary." It was mostly about Webster's Third International, the unabridged dictionary that the public disliked so much, but it also discussed other modern dictionaries and it reserved its most strident criticisms for the American Heritage. The problem was a theoretical one, I think. As I remember it, the idea of having a board of "experts" made up of novelists and songwriters and historians and what-not was considered unprofessional and unscientific by the modern "descriptive linguists"; the problem was that a board of authorities like that (whether you call them "authorities" or not) makes a dictionary ipso facto "prescriptive" rather than descriptive, and the field of lexicography had progressed (or at least moved) beyond (or at least away from) that.

Rex Stout began one of the Nero Wolfe mysteries with Wolfe sitting in front of his fireplace ripping out the pages of Webster's Third International one by one and throwing them into the fire. That's how strongly some people felt about it. I guess they WANTED their dictionaries to be authorities rather than simply reporters. But the question is always: Who gives these people any right to be authorities? I think it has been accepted that the distinction between "shall" and "will" that we were all taught in school was MADE UP by an English mathematician. I forget his name, but his name is known. He MADE IT UP because he thought it made everything neater, and we've all had to learn it. Where did he get off doing that?

I usually discount, if I haven't made it clear, any argument at all based on dictionary definitions because I myself, and everyone I speak to . . . all of us are just exactly as well qualified as anybody else to pontificate. We may not be so well qualified as the professionals to pontificate about usage, because most of us haven't taken any broad scientific surveys of the speakers of our geographical region to determine what they mean by what they say; but about the general features of our language we ARE the authorities. We are the people to whom the professionals come to collect their data, which they then report back to us.

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