On words and a love for dictionaries


A zillion years ago, I majored in English at Bluffton College (now University). English. Not English education. Didn’t plan to teach. Had not a whit of an idea of what I would do with the rest of my life. But English was fun…all that reading, writing, analyzing, etc. And yes, I was one of a very few in my graduating class. Today, at least one of the others is a college professor. A few of us fell into journalism.

I love words. I love reading dictionaries. That wasn’t always true. Let’s blame that on my dad. Well, you can probably also blame him for the fact that eventually I learned to love dictionaries. When I was a kid and got stuck on a word, I’d ask my dad. Hey, he was a college professor with a PhD. He knew everything, right? But here’s the thing. He never gave me a direct answer. His usual response was, “You know where the dictionary is.” And yes, I did, but it was easier to ask. Eventually — probably after about 20 years — I learned to quit asking.

When our kids were growing up, we often played the dictionary game after dinner. It was a ruse to keep them at the table. Each person got to pick a word from the dictionary and try to stump the others. Yeah, we were a pretty nerdy, boring family. But it was a great way for the girls to learn new words. Thing is, they both surpassed us long ago.

So anyway, yesterday I was grading a student’s research paper draft. She’d used the word “continual.” My first thought was that she was wrong…that it should have been “continuous.” So, I logged onto my favorite online dictionary (I was not in my office and didn’t have access to the paper version, which would have been my first choice). Turned out she was right; I was wrong. She’d used “continual” in the right context.

And just in case you’ve read this far and wonder about the difference between the two? Look them up. You know where the dictionary is.

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