Several weeks ago I wrote a column about the need to focus our children's attention on the precise pronunciation of certain troublesome words, and I urged parents and teachers to use the month of February to practice the pronunciation "feb-Roo-ary" (instead of "feb-Yoo-ary").
I received more mail about that column, I think, than any other in the Family Learning series. Most of the letters asked the same question: How can we get children to adopt the "correct" pronunciation when Webster's Dictionary lists the "feb-Yoo-ary" form first? Doesn't that mean it is the "preferred" pronunciation? No, it doesn't. But to understand what it does mean, we have to understand a little more about dictionaries.What do you think a dictionary SHOULD do? I mean, when you look up a spelling or a pronunciation or a definition in a dictionary, do you think that what you are being told is the way a word SHOULD BE spelled, pronounced and used, or are you being told the way that word IS spelled, pronounced and used by most people most of the time? I'll bet that, like most people, you remember someone telling you that when there are several spellings or pronunciations for the same word, the dictionary will always place the "correct" one first - the one preferred by the most educated speakers and writers. And, until the early 1960s, this is what most dictionaries did.
But then the folks who were writing Webster's Third International Dictionary decided that it really wasn't their business to tell people how they SHOULD use the English language; their job, instead, was to create a book that would reveal the way English actually IS commonly used. So, almost all the Webster's dictionaries from that time on began placing the "most frequent" spelling of a word in the first position (even though that form might be listed as a frequent "misspelling" in a school grammar text) and less frequently used forms later. In the same way, the "most frequent" pronunciations preceded less frequently heard forms.
This created a great debate among lexicographers (those who compile dictionaries), a debate that is still going on today. Some publishers followed the Webster's lead and created "descriptive" (some would say "permissive") dictionaries. Others tried to remain "prescriptive," but then faced the difficulty of deciding who should be doing the prescribing, and why one form should more "correct" or "preferred" than another anyway.
So, there you have it. What do you think a dictionary should be, "descriptive" or "prescriptive"? An even better question is, which of these labels applies to your own dictionary? The only way for you to know is to wade through the introductory pages, which are usually set in microscopic type, and look for a section titled "Variants."
A dictionary can be a wonderful home reference tool, but you just can't assume that it is telling you one thing when it may well be telling you something else. This is why I urge families to have their own "family dictionary," and to get to know it by making it a convenient and frequent part of their living room or family room activities. A "desk size" or "collegiate size" is ideal - not one of those bigger-than-a-breadbox, "unabridged" models that never gets used because no one can lift it.
"Prescriptive" dictionaries are no better than "descriptive" ones. The purpose of each is to help you make an informed choice about the usages that you choose to adopt for yourself. In the end, you and your children will determine the standards that apply to your own use of language. You will model your standards, and change those standards again and again, according to the usages you hear and read.
And one of the things you'll read is that first "r" in "February." What you do about it is all up to you.- Dr. William F. Russell's books for parents and children include "Classic Myths to Read Aloud." Send your questions and comments about Family Learning to him at P.O. Box 1279, Menlo Park, CA 94026.