January 13, 2012

Put it in your own words

Dictionaries, and dictionary apps,
are useful. But don't use them as crutches.
I recently read a book in which the author repeatedly employed what I call the "Webster cliche." This is the bit where the author brings up an element of his topic, and then, assuming the element is unfamiliar to the reader, writes something like this:

Webster's defines "element" as "one of the simple substances air, water, fire, and earth of which according to early natural philosophers the physical universe was composed."

Several problems can arise here, and I'm not talking about the fact that I picked a different definition of "element" than one would expect from the context of the first paragraph.

For starters, "Webster's" is an incomplete citation. The complete citation for the definition above would be: Webster's Third New International Dictionary, Unabridged. Merriam-Webster, 2002. http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com (10 Jan. 2012).

Yeah. We all know you meant that. But the idea is to not get a cease-and-desist letter from Merriam-Webster's copyright attorneys.

Difficulties protecting the Webster trademark led to a proliferation of dictionaries with the name "Webster" on them, to the point that by the middle of the twentieth century almost any dictionary might be labeled "Webster's," regardless of the thoroughness of its lexicography or its actual connection to the work of Noah Webster. Because of the diligence of the aforementioned attorneys, this problem has largely been cleared up.

I don't mean to imply that you can't use Willy Webster's Upteenth Unabridged if you want to. Just get the citation right. Or you could get two letters.

But citations lead to another problem. In the book I mentioned, the author employed the Webster cliche eleven times, all within in the first few chapters. It became repetitive and annoying.

But, you argue, one must ensure the reader understands what one means when one says "element."

True. Do that by telling the reader what you mean. Do it on your own authority. If you are writing a book, you are establishing yourself as an expert in the field. Be the expert. You don't need ol' Noah Webster or either of the Merriam brothers to do it for you. Just say it.

An element is any part that contributes to the whole.

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