(Please, sir, may I come in and work on your dictionary?)
Recently, I’ve been studying the different kinds and styles of dictionaries. And though they are ubiquitous in our profession, many writers and editors may not be familiar with all the types and styles of dictionaries. Here’s a summary.
Language dictionaries come in two types: prescriptive and descriptive. Prescriptive dictionaries describe how words should be used and attempt to establish correct forms of language. Their entries may include added information telling readers that certain words are “sometimes offensive” or “nonstandard.” Merriam-Webster and American Heritage are considered prescriptive, according to Wikipedia. For example, the entry for “irregardless” in Merriam-Webster will include the definition and a “usage discussion.”
The OED and Webster’s are descriptive, meaning they describe how words are used. Descriptive dictionaries offer little commentary on “appropriate” usage.