NEW DICTIONARY Word is, today's students need help
Editors of this new dictionary read through college students' papers and were appalled.
By MIKE BOWLER
The first major dictionary of the 21st century is appropriately directed at the deteriorating writing skills of college students.
The Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, published last month by St. Martin's Press ($24.95), addresses today's students' problems with English grammar, usage, spelling and vocabulary.
How bad is it? Ask any college professor who has to slog through student essays.
Ringing bells: That's what the editors of this new dictionary did: They consulted a panel of 80 authorities, including 32 English professors, mostly at public universities in 24 states and four Canadian provinces. Examples submitted to the dictionary editors will ring bells from the local community college to Harvard University:
"Reading Wuthering Heights, Heathcliff never fails to make an impression."
"The villain use to be seen lurking on foggy streets late at night."
"In his plight to find the treasure, he perished on the dessert island."
"There's players all over the field."
"Shakespeare's plays had alot of strong women."
"It's a doggie-dog world out there."
"Our society has a dog-eat-dog pecking order."
Don't know: These are just several examples. Students don't know the difference between they're, their and there, the professors said. They routinely confuse its and it's. They don't know the difference between blatant and flagrant,pretext and pretense. They think that although means "however," as in "Although, everyone did know the murderer."
And because computer spell-checking software doesn't flag words that sound alike but are spelled differently, constructions such as "It prayed on her mind" are handed in uncorrected.
A dictionary, of course, can't solve all of these problems, but this one takes a stab at some of them. It features more than 600 usage notes alerting students to common errors. The dictionary also lists words that are often misspelled.
Homophone warning: Perhaps most ironic, given Microsoft's role in the ascendancy of computer spelling checkers, there are 400 notes warning of homophones. Students looking up stare, for example, are advised: "Do not confuse stare with stair,' which has a similar sound. Beware: your spellchecker will not catch this error."
Anne H. Soukhanov, editor of the dictionary's American edition, said the panel of professors persuaded her to include the spell-check warnings. The spell-check traps are listed in alphabetical order in the front of the dictionary, and Soukhanov said she hopes students will refer to the list first and then look up specific words in the body of the dictionary.
Tech words: You'd expect a dictionary sponsored by Microsoft to include up-to-the-minute definitions of all things technological, and Encarta doesn't disappoint. Computer and Internet words are marked with a lightning-bolt symbol (not cymbal), and there's one on almost every page.
Many of them -- bot, for example, the word for a computer program performing routine tasks -- have little meaning to Joe Blow. Which, by the way, is in the dictionary, along with Joe Six-Pack. So is NY-LON, an adjective relating to "a trans-Atlantic lifestyle divided between New York and London, as lived by successful business executives."
(Microsoft isn't among the book's 320,000 definitions, and Bill Gates, its chairman, is modestly described as a "U.S. business executive." Steve Jobs, by contrast, is defined as "co-founder of the Apple Computer Co.")
Constructing dictionaries is tricky business. The lexicographers have to decide whether to be descriptive, capturing a moment in a language's history, or prescriptive -- making value judgments about the use and spelling of the language.
No dictionary, including the Encarta, is all one or the other, Soukhanov said from her office in Bedford, Va., "but I tend to be on the conservative side."
Her dictionary shows it. It advises against using issues to denote intentionally unstated emotional or mental problems, as in "He came to see me because he has some issues."
In a hard-hitting introduction to the 1,678-page tome, Soukhanov writes about a "clear and present crisis in many students' use of the English language." This dictionary is an attempt to help ease the crisis.
For now, it's available only in print.