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](http://durbin.senate.gov/), 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.