Caitlin Kelly

Writer and Editor

 
 
         
   

tips

   
         
    Use a Dictionary    
 
Take Good Care of Yourself
It Takes a Village
Someone's Life
Trust Your Gut!
Jargon
Getting Fired
Pain
Fear
Pleasures
Pitfalls
What It Takes
When the Going
Gets Tough
Intellectual Archeology
NoNoNoNoNoNo
NoNoNoNoNoYes
Interviewing
The Best Writing
is Rewriting
Use a Dictionary
Carefully Chosen Language
Inspiration...
Running a Home-Based Business
Quality Control
Coming Up with Ideas
Selling the Story
Reading
Paying Attention
Play Dates
Getting It
  Whenever I teach journalism -- whether to undergrads or adults in their 60s -- I make a suggestion that always gets a laugh. It's not supposed to, but I keep making it anyway. Use a dictionary.

As I write these words, a small dark blue book lies to the left of my computer. It's the Pocket Oxford Dictionary, fourth edition, from 1964. I bought it in fourth grade and the endpapers are full of my drawings and doodles and my carefully penciled 9-year-old signature. Using it, I read "The Scarlet Letter" in eighth grade, barely able to get through a paragraph without flipping wildly through its thin tissue pages in a frenzied search for comprehension. Our dour Scottish teacher must have required the patience of a saint as we struggled in class through the book, but she insisted we read and understand. That trusty little dictionary turned huge polysyllabic terrors into treasured new additions to our vocabulary. Thanks to the dictionary, no text could scare me.

Even today, I use it. It's a midget compared to another reference I own. Yet, time and time again I reach for the huge (753 pages) Webster's New Dictionary and Thesaurus and go back instead, frustrated, to the old battered Oxford. Not all dictionaries are equal. I love Oxfords, but I'm Canadian with a British heritage. Browse through your local bookstore some afternoon and find one, or several, you like.

Why even use a dictionary? My students think spell check is the answer to everything. It merely tells you (if it catches the error) you've made a mistake of orthography (That word, once more, is in my Oxford, but not in my Webster's.) A dictionary also saves you from using a word that does not convey the meaning you intend, and your primary task is to choose words precisely.

I also love discovering unfamiliar words and meanings. My little Oxford tells me that Russia is "a leather prepared with birchbark oil." O.K. That G.P.I. stands for General Paralysis of the Insane. That a Joe Miller (who?) is a stale joke... How about a jaconet? (A cotton cloth, especially waterproofed for poulticing.) Or, one of my all-time favorite words, pelisse, a woman's long mantle, hussar undress jacket (who knew?) or child's outdoor garment.

Funny, it's just across the page from pedantic....