Missing in my two previous articles in this series about writing better is any reference to one of the most powerful tools at a writer’s disposal: A dictionary.
I decided to dedicate an entire post to one of the most fundamental books in the English language because where style guides, fellow writers, editors and your memory can fail, a dictionary usually won’t. It represents the ultimate authority on language usage. Whether you need to remember an obscure spelling or see an example sentence for how to use pragmatic (the most looked-up word at Merriam-Webster online), a dictionary won’t fail you. And now that they’re online and changing primarily from books into databases, you can with a Google search often come up with great, authoritative illustrations for new words more frequently than in the past. Just be careful when checking Urban Dictionary!
A special note on Google ‘definition’ searches: Just because a definition appears in a leading “knowledge graph” box (pictured above) or top 5 listing doesn’t equal authority. Like any Google result, always check the source. While you can’t go wrong with a traditional dictionary, the reliability of newer online resources for specialty English—Investopedia’s dictionary of finance terms vs. some random person’s scraper site covered in AdSense, for example—vary wildly.
Following timeless tricks of the trade, the smart writer should assess the validity of the definition by the credibility of its origin. If the website passes the “smell test,” then using that definition is probably a safe bet. When in doubt, try to get a second definition from another (preferably mainstream) source to corroborate the first.
Whether you’re a copywriter, editor, social media specialist, salesperson or CEO, you should be best friends with a dictionary (or at least online searches for dictionary examples). If you want to have clearer writing and stronger communication with your audience, then you need make sure the words you’re using are not only proper, but also authoritative.
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