Q&A: Can you use unlisted words?

question answer

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Q: A word I want to use isn’t listed in the dictionary. Can I use it anyway?

A: Yes, as long as your reader will understand you.

Contrary to popular belief, dictionaries are not prescriptive manuals that tell you what words you may or may not use. They are descriptive tools that tell you what people mean when they use words, and how to spell those words. That’s why you’ll find much-reviled words like irregardless listed, albeit with a note to “use regardless instead.” You’ll also find some words, like OK, can be spelled more than one way. Continue reading

Establish Your Authority by Defining Terms in Your Own Words

I’ve seen a lot of books, both published and unpublished, in which authors use what I call the “Webster cliché.” This is the bit where the author brings up some aspect of his topic, and then, assuming the element is unfamiliar to the reader, writes something like this:

Webster’s defines “element” as “one of the simple substances air, water, fire, and earth of which according to early natural philosophers the physical universe was composed.”

This is a problem, and not only because I picked a different definition of “element” than one would expect from the context of the first paragraph. Continue reading