Sunday, 15 April 2012

Investigating words: Why the Macquarie?

A while ago I posted a comment on the Letters and Numbers website responding to complaints about the show's use of the Macquarie dictionary.  It has long since vanished, and I figure that sooner or later I'll want to say much the same again, so here's a post about it for posterity.  This is somewhat longer than the original comment, because I now have more room to ramble.

Every so often on that website someone will complain (usually with disproportionate ire) about some particular word being disallowed (or, more rarely, allowed).  Obviously, the show must have some decision procedure about which sequences of letters are going to be considered valid words for its scoring purposes; otherwise the contestants would be all "That's a nice tnetennba" about things.  So a list of valid words is needed, and the natural and sensible approach is to use a dictionary for this purpose.

One could take this suggestion further and say that several dictionaries would be better, as any specific dictionary is likely to have omissions due to the English language continually evolving.  That is a reasonable point of view in general, but I feel there are two reasons that it does not work for the show.  The first is a pragmatic one: Having to check more than one source would slow down the show production for very little benefit.  The other is more about the keen home viewers (or prospective contestants): A desirable feature is for them to be able to do this checking themselves; this increases involvement and a sense of transparency in the decision procedure.  Having more than one source would significantly raise the cost to them of doing so.

The second reason also argues against using some custom word list that the show has put together (or one of the Scrabble word lists); it is harder for the interested home viewer / prospective contestant to get their hands on that than a published dictionary.

Assuming that the above reasoning is accepted, the question becomes: Which dictionary to use?  There are many points to take into consideration, but one point trumps them all: Since this is an Australian show, as much as possible of the everyday Australian vernacular should be allowed.  The Macquarie is unquestionably the most comprehensive dictionary of English as used in Australia, including a wide range of colloquialisms and regionalisms, and it is thus the only sensible choice of dictionary for this show.

There are drawbacks to using only the Macquarie (as there would be to any dictionary), and I've gone on about some of them in the past before.  But the key point is that it is the most appropriate of the available alternatives.  I support the show's use of the Macquarie as their reference dictionary, while at the same time hoping that the next edition will address what I see as some of the deficiencies in it (especially with regard to its use in Letters and Numbers).

If anyone from the Macquarie somehow ends up reading this: The major issue is the inflected forms, which are lamentably inconsistently handled.  In some cases reading an entry leaves me completely unclear as to the correct spelling for an inflection (usually the plural of a noun or the present tense of a verb, where the question of -s or -es is not always straightforward).  Nouns ending in 'o' are particularly troublesome in this regard; there are examples where the plural form(s) are explicitly listed when only -s is allowed, when only -es is allowed, and when both are allowed.  So when no plural form is listed (for an obviously pluralisable noun) there is no good basis to infer which is supposed to be the case.

In contrast, my copy of The Chambers Dictionary (1993) does a wonderful job of dealing with this that I would love the Macquarie to emulate: In just two pages up front it gives the basic rules that it follows for what the default inflected forms are (depending on the last letter or so of the word).  It then only lists inflections where those rules do not suffice, and as a result I can be completely certain when I look at an entry in it what all the accepted inflected forms are (according to it).

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