How Do Words Get in the Dictionary?

Who decides?

Mignon Fogarty
4-minute read
Episode #281

What Is a Style Guide?

If all of this permissiveness makes you crazy, you may be comforted to know that there are books that try to hold the line on language. They’re called usage guides or style guides. For example, books such as The Chicago Manual of Style, the AP Stylebook, and Garner’s Modern American Usage make determinations about what is acceptable. They tell you that although some people say “irregardless,” you shouldn’t if you want to be taken seriously.

Yet even these books are  influenced by common use. For example, the AP Stylebook recently recommended leaving the hyphen out of e-mail.* The editors said common use has gone so heavily in that direction that it wasn’t worth trying to uphold the rule anymore.

So the next time you turn to a dictionary for a ruling about whether a word is acceptable or a “real” word, keep in mind that although dictionaries are incredibly useful, their role generally isn’t to make decisions about good or bad words. Their role is to define and describe words that you are likely to encounter.

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of the Quick and Dirty Tips network and the author of The Grammar Devotional and Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing.

* I like the hyphen and will continue using it for now. It’s a style choice.

Note: An earlier version of this article originally ran in July of 2013.

Dictionary image, Caleb Roenigk at Flickr. CC BY 2.0.


About the Author

Mignon Fogarty

Mignon Fogarty is the founder of Quick and Dirty Tips and the author of seven books on language, including the New York Times bestseller "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing." She is an inductee in the Podcasting Hall of Fame, and the show is a five-time winner of Best Education Podcast in the Podcast Awards. She has appeared as a guest expert on the Oprah Winfrey Show and the Today Show. Her popular LinkedIn Learning courses help people write better to communicate better.