Word Traveler: Usage Notes and Example Sentences in Dictionaries

This feature is for all word lovers as well as those studying for the SAT and seeking to learn new vocabulary.

Usage, the actual or expressed way in which a language or its elements are used and interrelated, varies among groups of people according to locality, level of education, social environment, occupation, etc. -- and also varies in an individual's speech depending on the situation and his/her purposes. Dictionaries assign usage labels to show informal contexts or to show that a usage is common to a group or locality. Usage notes give a good deal of information about grammar and fine differences of meaning, explaining what is the most common practice and advising on the best forms for formal writing.

An example, also called a verbal illustration or illustrative quotation, is a quotation from text or speech that the dictionary-maker adds to an entry to help explain a word's meaning or use. Examples range from two-word phrases showing a common collocation (combination), to a sentence from literature or speech. Users need to have both the explanation of the word's meaning and examples of the word in use to reinforce the meaning, not reformulate the definition. Dictionaries should show how words are actually used, in appropriate contexts, in typical grammatical structures, and with words that are normally associated with the words defined.

There are entries which do not benefit from the addition of verbal illustration, such as those for technical, scientific, or very specific concrete objects which can be explained well enough through definition. The use of examples in these cases is only worthwhile if other information is shown, like the verb(s) which are most often combined with the noun(s). This is especially important for foreign learners who are unaware of the limitations of words in another language. But for abstract words and those with complex and multiple meanings, definitions may not be sufficient and examples are particularly important for full explanation.

An example must make a positive contribution to the understanding of a word's meaning or use. Often, an example can convey typical use better than description by definition or notes because the reader recognizes the collocation from something he/she once heard or read. The main point to remember is that an example should be chosen or written primarily for its contribution to the understanding of meaning and also to show how a word is used grammatically or naturally (in a sentence).

The use of examples in a dictionary means that readers can scan entries and identify the particular meaning they are seeking by finding verbal illustrations that are similar to what they have heard or are reading. A major problem for users is looking up a word and then not being about to figure out which sense is the one needed because there are no examples of the word's use. A great deal of information can be learned by offering more than the meanings of words.

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