ADS-sponsored survey

Your Name Joe_Pickett at HMCO.COM
Wed Aug 9 18:11:54 UTC 2000

Frank Abate wrote:

<<Steve: For those times a dict user DOES go to look up a pron (a tiny minority
of overall dict look-ups, I contend), sure, they might look to the pron key, if
it's handy, as on every spread, as it has been in most of the top Amer dicts.
But even these curious folks might have trouble with a key.  We'd have to ask in
a survey.

But, note that the new Web New World 4th ed. (1999) now has no pron key in the
text, just a note sending users to the front matter.  The WNW folks have decided
that the space for more entries is more valuable than the pron key being printed
750 or so times.  I think they made a sound decision.

We (that is, dict editors) need a sizable survey of real users to determine how
dicts are actually used, and for what purposes people turn to them, and how
satisfied they are after use.  I have only my personal observations and
intuition to go on.

Could ADS sponsor a survey of dictionary users?  Sent by email (no mailing
cost)?  I'll be happy to draft one, if there is some assurance that it will be
sent and the responses compiled, for general use, no restrictions.>>

I'm all for finding out more about how people use dictionaries and the
difficulties they have, and I'm all for making dictionaries as user-friendly as
we can.

But I am skeptical of Frank's notion of basing a dictionary on how most users
use the dictionary most of the time.

Consider the logic:

If people almost never use the dictionary for pronunciations anyway, what's the
point in including them?  What's the point in going through the trouble of
changing the pronunciation system to another one that has its own rules and
transformations? Will people be more likely to read the pronunciations under a
"newspaper" style system if they didn't under a conventional treatement? will
they be able to disentangle the ambiguities? does it matter? It doesn't seem to
bother the editors of our newspapers.

To the bigger questions: If we are basing the structure and content of the
dictionary on the relative frequency with which people look up specific parts of
it, why should we include function words and  basic verbs and all sorts of other
things that most people do not bother to look at, since they "know" them

An education researcher once objected to me that children really didn't need to
wade through all those basic words like do and of.  Kids really needed a
streamlined dictionary that contained just what they needed know.

In other words, I told her, she wanted a children's dictionary that did not have
the easy words or the really hard adult words, but just the words that were
pretty hard.  How were we supposed to identify those pretty hard words? pretty
hard for who? pretty hard for what situation?

The problem always boils down to education. A dictionary is after all a very
sophisticated research tool that compresses a lot of information about words
into a very tiny space and requires lots of mental maneuvering (much of which
eventually becomes automatic to verbal sophisticates) to yield productive
knowledge. How thoroughly should dictionary makers expect the education system
to teach students the conventions of the dictionary entry?  Dictionary skills
have come and gone like many other educational fads.

The alternative is to try to make dictionaries more user-friendly in their
structure and content. Efforts to make dictionaries more user-friendly
inevitably require more space (as in the discursive style of defining that is
common to kids' dictionaries: "To rob means to take something away from
someone.")  But when you add more text, you require more reading, and this
itself has pedagogical limitations, since it makes no sense to write discursive
definitions (or add grammatical information, etc.), if readers are turned off by
too much text, and stop reading after the first two lines of an entry.  And this
leads to inevitable discussions about what is dispensable in order to
accommodate the more discursive treatment.

I'm not dismissing Frank's ideas. I'm just saying that this is a very
complicated matter that does not have an easy solution, and that this may be why
dictionary makers have stuck to their conventional treatment of pronunciation
and many other things.  It's the devil you know.

Joe Pickett

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