Please Don’t Use the Dictionary!

It’s one of the most common and one of the dullest tools that writers or speakers pull out of their toolboxes–quoting a dictionary definition when trying to make a point. It happens every day whether it’s a blogger, a teacher, a preacher or a speaker. Webster gets quoted to define some painfully ordinary word like professional or accidental or addiction. Why is this such a problem?

It’s lazy. Instead of writers making a true effort to help their readers understand the content in their own words in a way that clearly communicates to them in their context, they do the easiest thing in the world–look up a word in a dictionary.

It tells but doesn’t show. Skilled communicators know that if you want to express your ideas powerfully, telling is rarely sufficient. Showing with a story or an illustration or a metaphor captures emotion and imagination. A dry, dictionary definition is deadly.

It seems authoritative but it’s not. Somehow people think Webster is a kind of oracle. Certainly there is a lot of excellent scholarship that goes into the making of dictionaries. But if you want a real expert to support what you have to say about a particular subject, you probably shouldn’t quote a lexicographer.

It insults your audience. Do you really think your readers or listeners don’t know what professional, accidental or addiction means?

Sometimes the U.S. Senator from Illinois, [Dick Durbin](, needs to be identified. Sometimes specialized vocabulary needs to be defined. So when you talk about supralapsarianism, please explain. But to define professional is not professional.

Author: Andy Le Peau

I've been an editor and writer for over forty years. I am passionate about ideas and how we can express them clearly, beautifully, and persuasively. I love reading good books, talking about them, and recommending them. I thoroughly enjoy my family who help me continue on the path of a lifelong learner.

5 thoughts on “Please Don’t Use the Dictionary!”

  1. I understand what you are getting at by discouraging folks form robotic quoting like “Webster Says…” or “Webster defines…”. I find myself thinking somewhat opposite not about people quoting from dictionaries but about wishing they would used one so they could be more precise and therefore more clear. I would re- title your post: Pleas Use the Dictionary! Just Don’t Quote from It Every Time You speak.

    I hear the word professional tossed about all the time to the point that I have gone to a dictionary to make sure I do understand what it means. I AlWAYS hear it used in the adjectival sense to mean: “exhibiting a courteous, conscientious, and generally businesslike manner in the workplace”. That is how I hear it used 99 percent of the time. People mean dress appropriately or be timely or be courteous or treat your clients/coworkers with respect but they say, “be professional”.

    I was at a funeral for a solder last week who was described as a “silent professional”. In my mind that is Special Forces speak for someone who is good at applying lethal force with precision. I have no idea if that is what it really means. Another example for that word’s confusing usage is the title of John Piper’s book, Brothers We Are Not Professionals. I have not read this book so I don’t know what he means but it does not line up with the common usage of the word in my mind. Is he telling ministers not to dress formally or not to be timely or not to be courteous or not to treat their parishioners with respect? I doubt it.

    I NEVER hear the word professional used in the original sense of belonging to a profession; i.e. the medical profession.

    So I honestly do question if people understand what I mean when I am trying to convey an idea with words. Do they understand professional the same way I do? Who knows anymore!

  2. The other cliched opener that gets me is, “If you do an internet search for ___…”

    But even as I’m rolling my eyes ever so slightly, I’m leaning forward to hear what the google generation thinks about the topic on hand.

    Webster defines “duplicity” as …

  3. Absolutely, Rachel. The Google results thing is so lame. Of course you are going to get a bazillion hits on Google. It means almost nothing. It looks like research, but it’s not.

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