What Happens When You Disagree with a Dictionary?

Have you ever consulted a dictionary to confirm the correct usage of a word only to find that the information listed is not what you expected? Who’s the ultimate vocabulary authority? You or the dictionary?

A YouTube viewer posted a question asking which preposition to use with the verb accept: get accepted to a college or get accepted at a college. Most dictionaries I turned to failed to do more than provide a definition.  Learner’s dictionaries thankfully offered some examples to consider. I found the passive phrases accepted by school and at school. One dictionary also listed the transitive structure accept somebody into something. However, I didn’t find the phrase get accepted to a school, which is the wording I probably use most often to express the meaning of being admitted to a college or university. Have I been wrong all these years?

My response to the learner explained that use of at was confirmed by a dictionary, but I added that I frequently hear use of to, and in fact, I personally tend to say that somebody got accepted to a school. Ultimately, the student must process the information and decide for himself or herself what is “right”. In such cases, do I have to be the sole authority? No. I believe I have the responsibility to provide information based on respected sources, but I’m allowed to add my own observations. In fact, I’d argue that by doing so, I’m modeling what learning is. It’s pursuing information, thinking critically about your findings, and applying it to real life situations.


7 Comments Add yours

  1. philb81 says:

    For checking usage you could always try searching a corpus and seeing how common particular collocations are – try http://corpora.byu.edu – it’s a great resource!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      That’s a great suggestion. Thank you.

      I should mention that when I get vocabulary questions that are more about usage than meaning, I check learner’s dictionaries and also search for real examples in formal and informal contexts. For example, if I see an article published by a respected news source with one pattern, I trust that more than the patterns I find in song lyrics or a TV interview. But it’s good to be aware of common patterns in general, don’t you think? I can’t find a grammar/ vocabulary authority to confirm my use of get accepted to a school, but I know it’s commonly used, so I’d share the pattern with students.

  2. Nina Liakos says:

    Good post. Yes, this has happened to me, though I can’t come up with a specific example. Another thing that sometimes happens is that a student will write something that seems “wrong” to me, but when I check the dictionary, I find that it isn’t wrong–just unusual. For example, the student might use a word I have never seen before! Though it’s true that the word exists, it’s also true that it is not commonly used. I usually provide the student with the more usual synonym (without requiring them to use it), but sometimes I wonder if it might not be better to encourage students to use the unusual and colorful vocabulary they find rather than dumbing them all down to the same 40,000 (or whatever) words most of us use. I can learn new words from them!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      So true! I find myself facing the problem of how much feedback to give on student writings. Sometimes with advanced students their sentences aren’t grammatically incorrect and the vocabulary choices aren’t exactly wrong, but it just sounds – as you say – unusual. I usually decide to voice an alternative to an awkward sentence if (1) the number of “real” errors in the composition is low and (2) the student has made it clear to me that s/he desires to write more naturally and smoothly in English. I think it’s similar to giving corrections in the flow of conversation. You don’t want to prevent communication from happening or discourage it, which can result from overcorrection. If a student has progressed to the point where his/ her communication is always understood and now s/he wants to sound more polished or “more like a native speaker,” then I feel obligated to discuss alternative wording.
      BTW – I loved the argument of sounding more colorful and not “dumbing learners down” to the usual word choices!

  3. Daniel says:

    Google has a great new feature called N-gram (http://ngrams.googlelabs.com) which allows you to graph different word frequencies and compare them. Play around with it, it’s great!

    1. englishwithjennifer says:

      Daniel, thank you. This is a really cool tool. I read the explanation on “smoothing”, but I’m still a little unclear. Which would be more useful for an ESL teacher, a smoothing of 1 or 3? I think it’s great to compare words like “toward” and “towards”. How have you been using it? I’ll have to play around a bit more and then dedicate a post to this.🙂

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