Grammar You Can Look It Up |
The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation

You Can Look It Up

What happens when you come across a word you don’t know? Do you just keep reading? Most people do. They believe they can figure out a word’s meaning by looking at the sentence and using common sense. Maybe they’re right … but what if they’re wrong?

Here is a passage from a profile of a historical figure: “The prince, once a redoubtable opponent, became enervated by constant warfare.”

Choose which of the following sentences is true of the prince:

• The prince was a mighty warrior at first, but constant warfare exhausted him.
• The prince was not much of a soldier at first, but constant warfare made him a mighty warrior.

Those who cannot be bothered to look up redoubtable and enervated risk going through the entire essay with a distorted impression of the prince. Such readers are just wasting time—theirs and the author’s.

Serious readers look up every word they don’t know, even words they’ve seen before but are a bit fuzzy about. It is astonishing how few people demand this of themselves. Looking up a word never enters their minds, even though doing so takes mere seconds nowadays.

According to the language scholar Charles Harrington Elster, the average educated adult American has a vocabulary of between twenty-five thousand and forty thousand words. The Oxford English Dictionary contains more than six hundred thousand words—more words than exist in French and German combined.

So even if you had three times the vocabulary of the average person, you still would only know one out of every six English words that have ever appeared in print.

Last week’s article included a sentence that prompted a surprising reaction. We wrote: “Then there are those Wall Street peculators whose malfeasance still has the country reeling.” Some readers assumed we meant “speculators.” Their emails ranged from civil to scornful. One correspondent simply sent us the offending sentence, with “peculators” blown up to three times the size of the other words. This is the verbal equivalent of rubbing a naughty puppy’s nose in the mess he’s made.

It is beyond us why anyone would write a “gotcha” email before doing basic research. If you type peculate into a search engine you’ll get the definition in a few seconds. It probably took longer for the puppy-shamer to enlarge “peculators” than it would have taken him to look it up.

Speculating is legal; peculating is a crime. “Speculators” was too mild for our purposes. To us, “peculators” was le mot juste.

So exercise due diligence before you hit “send,” or the mistake you expose may be your own.


Pop Quiz

Choose the best word. Answers are below.

1. Taking advantage of that nice woman is ___.

A. contemptible
B. contemptuous
C. A and B are both correct

2. The ___ business of life is to enjoy it.

A. principle
B. principal

3. I am ___ to participate in this activity.

A. reluctant
B. reticent
C. A and B are both correct

4. Boris felt no remorse, no ___ about what he had done.

A. compulsion
B. compunction

5. Billie suffers from the ___ that she can sing.

A. allusion
B. illusion
C. delusion


Pop Quiz Answers

1. A: Taking advantage of that nice woman is contemptible.
2. B: The principal business of life is to enjoy it.
3. A: I am reluctant to participate in this activity.
4. B: Boris felt no remorse, no compunction about what he had done.
5. C: Billie suffers from the delusion that she can sing.

If the article or the existing discussions do not address a thought or question you have on the subject, please use the "Comment" box at the bottom of this page.

10 responses to “You Can Look It Up”

  1. Gemma Burke says:

    I agree with everything in your article above. I always have to look up a word when I am not sure of its meaning. It is so easy now to look up a word – on a Kindle you can just click on the word, and with access to online dictionaries by smartphone and tablet, there is no excuse for not checking the definition of a word.

  2. Anthony Dayton says:

    One of the advantages of ereaders such as the Kindle is the ease with which we can look up word definitions. Simply highlight the word and click, and there it is. I think ereaders also allow you to keep a list of the words you have looked up.

  3. Joseph S. says:

    I always thought that “principal” is the head of an elementary or secondary school. “Principle” is a comprehensive and fundamental law, doctrine, or assumption.

    • With all due respect, sometimes what we “always thought” was always mistaken. As the title of this article suggests, it is always a good idea to look it up online or in a dictionary.

  4. Oliver M. says:

    And many cell phones have the Google app which you can just vocally ask for the definition of a word and it will tell you (course I often use it several times a day for spelling more than definition…).

    Thanks, always enjoy your help.

  5. George B. says:

    Very nice point on peculators. I thought it was an angry chicken — until I looked it up.

    Growing up, I used to read the late Sydney Harris daily columns from the Chicago Sun. He had a eloquent use of vocabulary. I never read him without a dictionary nearby. I thank Mr. Harris for instilling my inability to continue reading if I had a modicum of doubt about a word.

    Thank you for all your admirable newsletters and keeping the light of integrity shining on our abused language. They are always a pleasure I suspect (hope) still puts a knowing smile on Ms. Straus’ face.

  6. Fred B. says:

    So true. I went right to the dictionary for peculate.

    Have you read Ron Chernow’s Alexander Hamilton? Chernow is a serious writer with a remarkable vocabulary requiring frequent visits to the dictionary. Two of my favorites were his references to Hamilton’s tumescent pen and to John Adams’s gasconading about. I have not seen those words since, but I have not forgotten them (yet).

  7. Stephanie M. says:

    Thank you for this blog post; this makes me feel better about myself as a writer and editor. When people come to me for a grammar issue or word clarification, I can now more easily be comfortable with my need to look up certain words.

  8. Stacy R. says:

    Loved the article. I was one of the “civil” responders. Although I do read with a dictionary close by, in my defense, I believe that because peculators is just one letter shy of the other word that would have equally suited the sentence, I immediately assumed it was a mistake. However, because I teach analytical writing, I should have known that such a “mistake” would have been picked up by a spell check program if the word was incorrect. Therefore, I should’ve known to look it up!

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