Dictionaries and, to a lesser extent, usage guides provide writers, editors, and users of American English information on how to use the language appropriately. Dictionaries, in particular, hold authority over correct usage of words. However, historically, usage guides and dictionaries were created using the knowledge of a small group of people. Lexicographers like Noah Webster set out to prescribe a proper way of using American English. To make these judgments, they often relied on a combination of study and idiosyncratic intuitions. A similar process took place in creating usage guides. Though these manuals profess to explain how the language is used by American English speakers-or rather by the selected group of speakers deemed "standard" by usage guide editors and lexicographers-ultimately the manuals can only express the perspectives of the editors and lexicographers on this language. Historically, the views of these editors and lexicographers were the best tools available to assess language, but now computer-based corpora allow for studying larger swaths of language usage. This study examines how much dictionaries and usage guides agree with real-world usage found in corpus data. Using the Corpus of Historical American English, a set of dictionaries and usage guides published throughout the last two hundred years were analyzed to see how much agreement they had with corpus data in noting the addition of denominal verbs (i.e., verbs formed by the conversion of nouns as in 'They taped together the box.') in American English usage. It was found that the majority of the time dictionaries noted new denominal verbs before corpus data reflected accepted usage of these verbs. However, about a quarter of the time dictionaries noted new denominal verbs concurrently with the corpus data. These results suggest that dictionaries-and the subjective opinions of the lexicographers that created them-are more aligned with real-world usage than would be expected. Because of sparse listings, results for usage guide agreement was inconclusive.



College and Department

Humanities; Linguistics and English Language



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Document Type





usage, Standard English, dictionaries, corpus linguistics, denominal verb, language change, usage guides

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Linguistics Commons