Julie's Genealogy & History Hub

Julie's Genealogy & History Hub -

Tuesday’s Tip – Use a Dictionary

Open Book

Last summer I attended the Institute of Genealogy and Historical Research. I was in Thomas Jones’s class Writing and Publishing for Genealogists. The class was well worth the money and I learned a lot about all things writing and editing in the world of genealogy.

One of the best tips I got was simple—use a dictionary! For a moment I thought, “well isn’t that obvious?” Sure, I use it regularly to look up correct spellings and definitions. But as Dr. Jones went on, I realized just how useful a dictionary could be.


My Ah-ha Moment

While there are many functions of a dictionary, there is one thing in particular I want to discuss. I personally struggle with the use of hyphens. It’s not just me; as an editor, I see this as a problem for almost every one of my authors. Does a hyphen follow a prefix? When is a compound noun hyphenated? Fortunately, as I learned, the dictionary holds the answers.

For example, if you want to know how to use and construct words with certain prefixes, such as co-, non-, pre-, and re-, consult a current dictionary. In most cases, the use of a hyphen with a prefix has gone by the wayside, but there are some exceptions and the dictionary will guide you. Is it semiannual or semi-annual; nonessential or non-essential. What about antiinflammatory or anti-inflammatory? Before you commit, look them up.

What about certain nouns, verbs, adjectives, or adverbs? Not sure if you’re to use strikeout or strike out? What about write-up and write up? How about full-time and full time?Head to the dictionary to find the answer, because each is a correct form, but each has its own meaning and usage.

The Chicago Manual of Style, which is typically the style manual used in our field, recommends “Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and the latest edition of its chief abridgement  Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary” (p. 350). I use the hardcopy of the latter (11th edition). I also have an online subscription that contains both the collegiate and the unabridged versions (among other options, such as the collegiate thesaurus).

Key takeaway: When in doubt, just look it up—in a dictionary!


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  • tonyproctor says:

    It’s probably worth mentioning, Julie, that some of us in different parts of the English-speaking world will be using different dictionaries, different grammatical rules, and different style guides. I’m thinking particularly of Britain and Ireland here, but I;m sure we’re all different in some way.
    Having had a few people suggest corrections to my online articles, I had to put a disclaimer at the foot of my blog — a sort of welcome to the World Wide Web. 🙂

    May 2, 2017 at 1:50 pm

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