25 Dec 2017

The Importance of Dictionaries

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Dictionaries are among the most basic and more powerful tool available to any author.

Dictionaries are essential for writersThe ability of people to communicate is based on the understanding of symbols. Each of us receives the symbols of others as we go about our daily lives. We transmit and receive symbols in the form of words, pictures, gestures, tone-of-voice and so on when we interact with other human beings, or the artifacts (books, for instance) of human beings.

Thus, if I tell you “the sky is blue”, you get an image in your mind of a blue sky, and there is agreement between the two of us about the meanings of each of those words, their grammar, and the way they are presented. This allows us to have a discussion or an exchange of ideas.

You could argue that communication extends to a deeper and more profound level. The sky, for instance, communicates it’s color to each of us, a flower communicates it’s smell, and a lion communicates it’s roar. In this manner, we extend communication, and symbols, out to the entire universe whether or not it is alive and sentient.

Communication is by far the most important activity performed by people. Without being able to communicate, we are all just isolated islands in a lonely sea of nothingness.

If you’ve ever read 1984, by George Orwell, you’ll understand one of the main points of the book is the “state” owns communication and symbols. Words are redefined to mean something entirely different, and because of that, the state gains control over it’s citizens. The message of 1984 and the control of the mind and the interaction of humans is truly frightening.

Dictionaries Are an Essential Part of the Writer’s Toolbox

Writers use three primary tools: words (the symbols), grammar (who to put those symbols together in a consistent and understandable way) and style (the complete set of rules for communicating in writing).

Writers must learn to use these three tools in order to get their message across to their readers. The more a writer understands words, grammar and style, the better they will be able write. Conversely, when a writer doesn’t understand them, they will have a difficult time getting their message out to their readers.

Dictionaries codify the agreement of the meaning of words. We can then use these agreements to write effective communications. Because of this, dictionaries are literally the most important books the exist. Without them, communication becomes far more difficult because there will be misunderstandings on the meanings of the words and symbols we use.

For example, if I say “the sky is blue” and you think “blue” means “cotton candy” while I think it means “a color”, we’ll have a really difficult time talking about the sky. We might even get into arguments because we simply will not be able to communicate.

Good writers work hard to learn the meanings of words, to understand grammar, and to be able to use good style.

Of course, there are many other elements of good writing, including showing instead of telling, effective dialog, and so on. However, all of these other elements build upon words, and the understanding of words depend on the availability and acceptance of good dictionaries.

My recommendation to all writers is to purchase several good dictionaries, including slang and technical volumes, in hardcover or paperback. Use these regularly as you write. Next, get a good, simple grammar guide and read it from cover to cover. Practice each grammar rule until you understand it totally. Finally, purchase the Chicago Manual of Style, and read a chapter or two every day.

These activities will make you a better writer, and also let you communicate more effectively.

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Hi, Richard,
I appreciate the point you are making. Sometimes I wonder if I really need to bother with the rules, because most folks don’t seem to know enough to follow them, but then I run into someone who does know and does care, and so I go ahead and follow the rules.


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