Dictionary and stylebook.

Why a Dictionary Should Be Your Best Friend

Sunday at Grandma’s house featured dinners with tomato “gravy,” meatballs and ravioli and reading from the dictionary. My grandparents kept their dictionary on a large wooden stand in their dining room and I would pull up a tall stool to go learn from it.

The habit of perusing the dictionary started with my introduction to newspaper reading. Whenever I came across a word I didn’t understand, I would ask my parents for its meaning and they would tell me to bring the dictionary to the kitchen table. It was an unabridged Oxford dictionary. Once I lugged out this anvil, I would continue flipping through it to better acquaint myself with the English language.

When I was a news desk editor, Merriam-Webster’s website was bookmarked on my browser and still is. Why? Perhaps I second-guess myself with spelling. Moreover, I’d rather avoid the embarrassment of not appearing to know my own mother tongue.

After all, Merriam-Webster is now known for highlighting the malapropisms of a certain leader of the Free World, including referring to “Scott Free” instead of scot-free. Graciously, Merriam-Webster referred to this gaffe as an “uncommon spelling.” Nice.

Ever received a business email with a misspelling or two? Yes, we have all been victimized by autocorrect and our constant use of cell phones increases the likelihood of such errors. So much so that it became briefly fashionable for people to disclaim in their signature line that any typos should be ignored because the email was sent from a phone. Such a glib explanation brought to mind the image of a carefree jet-setter heading to Aspen or some other glamorous locale. “I don’t care about you peons enough to check my spelling. Ta-ta!”

This is the writing equivalent of arriving at a business meeting with dirty hair and rumpled clothes. Try to at least make an effort of looking like you have self-respect and respect for those with whom you are communicating.

All that said, I have missed typos. The sting of that embarrassment never lessens.

I know what you’re thinking. You use spell-check (that is Merriam-Webster’s preferred spelling, although spellcheck and spell check are acceptable). Plus, there is that ever helpful red, squiggly line to point out the errors of your ways. True. Yet, these tools are not infallible. Befriend the dictionary. It won’t let you down.

How many times have I checked the dictionary while writing this? Multiple times. How often do you?

Katharine Fraser is a communications consultant, social media marketer and freelance writer and editor.