What are Explanatory Notes (and why are they important?)

Nov 08, 2010

Learn how to decode an entry

When you need to know something about a word, then the situation is usually critical. You are at the climax of the Great Australian Novel and you waver for a moment on how to spell 'recommend', or you have the vital clue in the crossword to fill in and you can't think of the name of the islands to the north of the Pacific.These are critical moments indeed when the dictionary will respond quickly, will understand entirely why you have rushed off without even so much as a thank you and with just the barest minimum of the information provided. Who would bother to look at the pronunciation when all they need is the spelling, or the etymology when all they need is the definition?

But it often strikes me as the editor that the section of the dictionary that is most unread is the Explanatory Notes. And that a quick skim through those pages could save dictionary users from error and confusion in those moments when they assault the body of the work. This becomes even more necessary when the dictionary moves from the printed page - where we have all had some grounding in the conventions - to online where suddenly everything that we once knew about the traditional structure of a dictionary entry seems to desert us. I was surprised by someone recently not realising that the definition and the illustrative phrase were two separate parts, that the distinction between roman type and italics meant something. They were understandably puzzled by the odd definition. The dictionary was being consulted in haste.

While dictionaries follow a fairly standard practice in the way they go about things, there are some individual differences.  Please, please read the explanatory notes. They really do explain things.

The Explanatory Notes can be found at the beginning of each print dictionary, and are available on the Understanding an entry page under the Help section on the website.

(Image courtesy of Pixabay)

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