2 Examples of Troublesome Dictionary Definitions

troublesome dictionary definitionsThe rules given in reference books, and indeed dictionaries, can sometimes be rather misleading, or represent incomplete ideas. As I teach (and study!) advanced language use, I often have to question reference guides, and have recently encountered two examples of this. To show how the dictionary does not always tell the whole truth, here are some additional considerations for this/next and the not only…but also rule.

Using ”next” for days of the week

I recently had an email regarding my article on using this and next to describe days of the week. The reader cited a dictionary definition to state that using next to mean the one after the next was an incorrect use of the word. Yet the dictionary definition quoted contains exactly that confusion:

Next:

(of a day of the week) nearest (or the nearest but one) after the present.
“not this Wednesday, next Wednesday”

Here using next is optional for the coming or subsequent week’s day. This inconsistency is precisely the point of my original post, to explain why this difference in use exists. Essentially when we talk about days in weeks, the next one in the sequence can refer to the next week in sequence, rather than the next day. How that is applied depends a lot on context – and to some degree on personal preference or regional differences. And as such the dictionary does not clearly define it one way or another, putting a seemingly contradictory option in brackets.

Using “also” in the “not only…but also” construction

A similar example came from a student of mine who had written a not only…but also sentence and left out the also. Her frustration, when I said it did not work, is that grammar guides, and her dictionary had noted it as being optional. I am guilt of that in my own post, noting “Also” is not always necessary, and can be either removed or (to emphasise something complimentary) replaced by “too” at the end of the second clause.

In a dictionary or grammar guide you might see this as not only – but (also).

The problem with this is that also is only sometimes left out, and from a strictly grammatical point of view it shouldn’t be. For the functioning of the sentence, also (or too) should always be used in this construction. In practical use, however, people simply do not always use it that way. The difficulty is that the dictionary must reflect that popular use, yet cannot explain it as a rule. Because there isn’t one.

These two examples show why English does not necessarily work based on dictionary definitions. It’s a living language, and what is written in a reference book will not change the way someone talks, and always has talked, if that is how they were raised. Reference books merely record use and do not always explain it. People do not learn to communicate from reading definitions, after all, so you must try and understand why people use terms differently, rather than simply consider things to be either rigidly used in a specific way (like next) or flexibly used as you wish (like not only…but also). Different uses are not necessarily wrong, or easy to generalise, so you must try to understand the logic behind them – and the dictionary itself does not always make this clear.

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