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Saturday, April 21, 2012

Mathematicians round, but do nurses? | Bill White, The Morning Call

White's column begins with a short amusing story about how "round" is used as a verb in a poster about the work of nurses. A professor writes, "Apparently, it's part of their healing through illiteracy initiative."

But more of the article is about alternative spellings of mannequin, as in this headline: "Man steals a dressed manikin from Phillipsburg Mall Sears."

White was criticized for mocking that spelling because it is found in dictionaries. He researched it and agreed, even offering a semi-apology: "To summarize, that mannequin wasn't the only dummy."

He still argues that his spelling is "most correct," and I agree! For one thing, our dictionaries these days have become mere documentation of how people use words, not clearly or consistently noting the correct or best way to use them.

One writing guru, Robert Hartwell Fiske, has researched the issue and found that mainstream college dictionaries like Merriam-Webster's, Webster's New World and American Heritage often report nonstandard uses of words as correct uses. Merriam-Webster's and Webster's New World, for example, apparently don't make a clear distinction between the uses of flaunt and flout, less and fewer, precipitate and precipitous, and predominate and predominant. 

He reports that the Oxford American College Dictionary and Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary are two of the best. 

But whatever the choice of dictionary, the entries in them may give a clue about the preferred use. For example, one of White's dictionaries said manikin is a "variant spelling of mannequin." And the other dictionary listed mannequin as a definition of manikin. According to style manuals I follow, those clues point to mannequin as the best choice--even if it doesn't fit a headline very well.

BTW, Fiske's latest book is Robert Hartwell Fiske's Dictionary of Unendurable English. I also keep another book of his, The Dictionary of Concise Writing, handy on my desk.

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