Terence Smith interviews Anne Soukhanov, editor of the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary.
TERENCE SMITH: The book is the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, and the general editor is Anne Soukhanov. She's been a dictionary editor for over 30 years. Unlike many other dictionaries, this one is technologically up to date; including terms associated with the Internet, and is designed to help college students avoid common usage errors. Anne Soukhanov, welcome.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Thank you.
TERENCE SMITH: Pleasure to have you here. Tell me this: Does the world need another dictionary?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: I think the world needs another dictionary more at this moment in the 21st century than it ever has before.
TERENCE SMITH: Why?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Because people are abusing and misusing the language, and they're not realizing that they're doing so, and we discovered this because of input from a 41-member advisory panel on usage from 26 U.S. colleges and universities across the nation and in four Canadian provinces and in the UK and Australia and New Zealand.
TERENCE SMITH: Mm-hmm. This is a prescriptive dictionary, as I think the term is used, right, rather than descriptive?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Yes, in the sense that we are activists in pointing out pitfalls that could be embarrassing in people's communications, whether oral or written.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. So you're actively urging people to avoid this problem or to state this one properly.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Exactly so, and especially for our college students and young professionals because they are at a very important juncture in their lives, particularly those who are entering college as freshmen, and those who communicate with grace, precision, and accuracy as they go through college and go into the marketplace have broader choices than those who don't, especially with global competition amongst English speakers.
TERENCE SMITH: Right. You have, for example, some, I think, 600 usage notes in there, where you actually give some advice -
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Right.
TERENCE SMITH: -- to the college student or the reader, and I know have one there in front of you involving word "unique." Would you read that?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: I sure will. "Correct usage: The use of 'unique' in its sense 'worthy of note' is common in marketing and advertising, as in 'don't miss this unique offer,' as well as in conversation. Many dictionaries and usage guides argue that 'unique' is an absolute concept, thereby rejecting the use of qualifying words such as 'very' or 'rather,' but in many cases this stricture seems a pedantic objection to what is a linguistic rather than a philosophical convention. It is, however, best avoided in formal college writing."
TERENCE SMITH: "A pedantic objection"? What's... If "unique" means unique-- singular, one, one of a kind-- what's pedantic about it?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Well, I think in terms of the rough and tumble of business, where people need to be a little bit more flexible, especially when they are in a competitive marketplace and have a product that they want to say is "the" most unique "x," "y," or "z" I think that they should have that flexibility, but I also believe that we need to point out to our college audience, which is the primary audience here, that they may be marked down by a professor who takes a very different attitude.
TERENCE SMITH: 'Cause your bottom line suggestion is don't do it.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: That's right.
TERENCE SMITH: Don't do it. You mentioned some other common mistakes and addressed them, and I jotted down a few. The use of the word, the different words "their," as in "their," "there," and "they are." How do you sort those out for the reader?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Well, we tried to explain the various problems that are involved with each one of those words; they are pronounced almost exactly the same, so that poses a spelling problem to begin with, and we've also discovered that students quite often do not understand what the parts of speech are nowadays.
TERENCE SMITH: Singular/plural?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Singular/plural, and they have trouble with contractions, and they have trouble with the placement of the apostrophe. So, with the contraction "they're" for "they are," we explain what that means; and "t-h-e--r," we have to deal with several different problems with regard to that pronoun, the antecedents, whether singular or plural; but the biggest, number one usage blunder that we see in the media and elsewhere, and in the college classrooms, according to the professors, is the use of "t-h-e-r-e" as an invariably singular subject as in "there's a million problems here."
TERENCE SMITH: I hear it all the time.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: And we explain that if you just reverse the sentence, you will get the true subject.
TERENCE SMITH: Is it your thesis that through television or the media that there's sort of a pollution of the language?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: I don't think it's necessarily pollution. I think there's a seepage that's been going on, probably since the late '60s, a seepage of informality that has moved into what used to be the formal discourse, the Walter Cronkite discourse, the Edward R. Murrow discourse. We see that happening all the time. It's probably because of the immediacy of the news cycle and the need to get the story out, and quite often reporters are under tremendous stress with breaking stories, and this has an influence on your listeners and viewers, because if one hears "there's a lot" over and over and over again, one picks it up.
TERENCE SMITH: Is the dictionary designed-- it seems to be-- to catch errors that spell-check does not catch?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Exactly, because there are many pairs of words, called homophones, which are pronounced exactly alike, but are spelled differently and have totally different meanings. And if you use, for example "discreet," d--s-c-r-e-e-t, "subtly diplomatic," when you want to use d--s-c-r-e-t-e, meaning "separate and unrelated," your spell-checker on your computer is not going to warn you that you're wrong because that spell-checker cannot distinguish context and, most important, it cannot think for you, just as though your calculator cannot think for you. If you've got the math in wrong, the answer's going to be wrong.
TERENCE SMITH: So from the college student's point of view, is spell-check actually a menace?
ANNE SOUKHANOV: I don't think it's a menace if students understand that they have to use their own human skills to get the most out of the electronic tool, and that's all it is, is a tool. One of the things we tried to do in this dictionary was put in the front lists of these words that can cause problems so that the professors can say to the students, here are your pitfall words; here are the 700 most- often-misspelled words; here are the words that have usage notes because they're most likely to be misused by you, the student, without your even knowing it; and here are these homophones which are going to cause you problems." And so take a look at these, and then proofread your material, and then do your spell checking.
TERENCE SMITH: Right, right. Why is this the "Microsoft Encarta Dictionary"? I mean, it's not, after all, software in your hands there.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: It's interesting because a number of years ago Microsoft paired and partnered with Bloomsbury Publishing in London and St. Martin's Press in the United States and Pan-Macmillan in Australia and New Zealand to bring out a totally new line of dictionaries, and the first one we brought out was the "Encarta World English Dictionary" in 1999, and this is simply a part of a line. It's an investment.
TERENCE SMITH: This is the college version.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: This is the college version, and there will be more dictionaries to come.
TERENCE SMITH: Let me ask you one thing. There seemed to, in my reading of it, some editorial judgments in here. For example, numerous figures are listed as dictators, but two, arguably, Saddam Hussein and Augusto Pinochet, are called "national leaders."
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Yeah. I think that that actually came from the fact that the editors who were doing this were more encyclopedically oriented, and I also found out, when I was looking into this recently, that every single dictionary on the market has the same kind of glitches. I made a study of who had all of the Israeli prime ministers in, and not a single one of all the dictionaries had them all. At least we've got the latest ones. We left one out, but one dictionary left seven or eight out, and so I call this the soft underbelly of lexicography.
TERENCE SMITH: So dictionaries are mortal, too. Anne Soukhanov, thank you very much.
ANNE SOUKHANOV: Well, thank you.