5 Things To Know Before Citing the Dictionary

If I only had a nickel for every time I’ve seen a paper or a speech that opened up with “Webster’s Dictionary defines…”

800px-english-english_and_english-persian_dictionariesIt’s a common way to begin addressing anything. You start with the definition of a word, and then go from there. It helps if you’re having trouble, and it can help make a point. But be wary, especially if you’re trying to build a critical argument on the common definition of a word. Dictionaries are collections of definitions of words, as most dictionaries themselves will tell you. While they’re reliable, using them in writing (or speech) can be done recklessly.

So here are 5 things you need to know before citing the dictionary:

A history of the English language in ten minutes

  1. Dictionaries don’t make the meanings of words; they record them.
    Jorge Louis Borges writes ,”It is often forgotten that (dictionaries) are artificial repositories, put together well after the languages they define. The roots of language are irrational and of a magical nature.

    They may define, but they’re not definitive, and they only try to capture a natural phenomenon that is always alive and growing. While dictionaries have helped standardize the spelling of words, the definitions given are based on how the editors see the words commonly used. They can be mistaken in their precise meaning, and those meanings can sometimes be debated. There’s no such thing as a dictionary “coming up with” what a word means. There are only variations, driven by multiple factors.

  2. Dictionaries differ, and have different purposes, uses, and sometimes, even agendas.
    There are general and special dictionaries, for example. A general dictionary is the kind to put in your library. Special dictionaries have a focus, whether it be on a field of study (like medicine or law) or a method (like linguistic or historical).

    While countless people tend to cite Mr. Webster, only Merriam-Webster’s dictionaries are truly carrying the tradition of Noah Webster. His name is public domain, so any schmuck can make a dictionary and call it a “Webster.” Look for the name Merriam-Webster. And if you’re going to get academic at all, go with quality, like Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. Noah Webster himself purposefully altered the listed meanings of some words for the purpose of crafting a distinct identity for the American language, though later editions of his dictionary are more descriptive than prescriptive.

    The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is widely regarded as the most comprehensive and reliable English dictionary. If you’re consulting it online, you’ll find that updates occur every three months. While Webster’s is the first American dictionary, Oxford’s has a longer tradition and is backed by Oxford University. But even the OED is open to criticism, and isn’t perfect. It isn’t the sole definitive source on our language, and it can be a little too British. Since it’s so highly regarded, its editors have been accused of being too stubborn to edit the thing.

    There’s also the American Heritage Dictionary, which has many selling points in competition with both the MW and the OED. The AHD also provides notes on connotations of words. Still, if you ask me, any dictionary you use for general topic writing should be one of these three. The exceptions would be writing in subjects that have their own specialized lexicons (law, medicine, biology, etc.).

  3. Meanings change across time, space, and venue.
    390px-murray_oed_vocabulary_types_diagram-svgThe definition you find likely isn’t the only meaning that word ever had in its history, or ever has in all the places it is used. For example, if you want to know what the framer’s of the Constitution meant, it would be helpful to look up how words like “commerce” and “militia” were defined in 1776, not what they mean today.

    Dictionaries like the OED actually trace the meaning of words across time, rather than merely give the most recent usage. That comes in handy when using a word whose meaning has changed, citing a word as someone used it over half a decade ago, or even has a different meaning across continents, or even towns.

    OED editor Jesse Sheidlower points out that “it’s easy to stack the deck by finding a definition that does or does not highlight a nuance that you’re interested in.” In other words, if I want a word to mean what I want it to mean, I’ll just find the dictionary that most agrees with me. But what I need to answer is the question of why it agrees with me. Why is that definition correct?

  4. Citing a dictionary in college is usually considered amateur and low form.
    Professors hate it when students try to throw in a dictionary entry to meet a required source count. Consulting a handheld dictionary to define an obviously definable word is considered lazy, unprofessional, and dull. If you want to impress your professors and write a strong paper, in most cases, avoid citing a dictionary. (An obvious exception would be if you were writing a paper about a word’s meaning).

    After all, is a dictionary a primary source? It is creating a denotation of a word based on its common usage. How useful can it really be compared to the wealth of information out there?

    “Dictionary definitions are written with a lot of things in mind,” says Jesse Sheidlower, an OED editor, “but rigorously circumscribing the exact meanings and connotations of terms is not usually one of them.” What’s funny is that he is referring to court justices trying to use the OED in the courtroom. Even that, according to dictionary editors, is absurd (Remember when Bill Clinton begged us to look up the definition of “is”?).

  5. Most audiences especially hate it when you begin a paper, article, or speech with a dictionary definition.
    While the study of lexicography can actually be quite exciting, it’s also notoriously tedious. Likewise, while exploring the meanings of words can be titillating, trying to hook an audience by listing a dictionary definition almost never works. We’ve all seen it done one too many times.

    There’s no better way to start a sleeper than by beginning with “According to Webster’s dictionary…” Never remind readers of the definition of a word they already know unless you are specifically stressing a point that can only be made by turning their attention to a precise definition. If you’re defining a word they don’t know, try providing a definition in your own words first, unless the dictionary denotation you found is just outstanding.


A good time to quote the dictionary is when you want to question the definition of a word, compare definitions, or dwell on the word’s common meaning in some way that only a dictionary entry can do. For example, it might be beneficial to bring in a dictionary definition of a word like marriage, truth, or homophobia, in order to question its rendered meaning in our language. If you purpose is to discuss semantics, then it might make sense to quote at least one or more dictionary definitions.

Also, there are countless written sources out there that give their own, sometimes in-depth definitions of words in a way that may serve your purpose better than a dictionary. Look up Stephen Colbert’s definition of the word “truthiness,” as it serves as a primary-secondary source better than a dictionary.

So in most cases, this means avoiding citing the dictionary altogether.

And if you are going to cite a dictionary, make sure you do it right. Here is an APA example of how to properly cite a dictionary entry.

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