Dictionaries: an indispensable guide for writing and style

Publication date
Thursday 15 February 2024

Dictionaries are about so much more than spelling and definitions. They also provide guidance on pronunciation, hyphenation, capitalisation and Australian language usage.

The most common reason people turn to a dictionary is for a definition. This is closely followed by guidance about how to pronounce a word. Even in the age of unlimited information on the web, try turning to reliable lexicographical resources, such as the Macquarie dictionary, Oxford dictionaries, and Merriam-Webster. These sources not only tell you what a word means, but provide a wide range of information about language.

So why use a dictionary? Well, if you’re not sure what ‘eshay’ or ‘shrinkflation’ are, you might find these words explained in the dictionary. But here are a few writing- and style-related problems a dictionary can also help you with.

When to hyphenate a word

Knowing when a word should be hyphenated can be a challenge. The age of online media and social media means style guides are not always applied, let alone applied consistently. Perusing online examples, therefore, is likely to leave you further confused. An up-to-date dictionary gives you guidance on this.

The trend overall is away from hyphenation: ‘water-ski’ is ‘waterski’; ‘horse-race’ is ‘horserace’, etc.

Tip: Dictionaries usually allow hyphenated and unhyphenated if both forms are common. But the most common form is the one used for the dictionary ‘headword’ – that is, the word that starts the dictionary entry.

One word or two?

Closely related to hyphenation, dictionaries will also provide information about whether something is one word or two. Is it ‘data set’ or ‘dataset’? Do we write ‘any more’ or ‘anymore’?

The trend here is towards the solid form: so ‘dataset’ and ‘anymore’. In some cases, it will depend on whether the word is being used as a noun or an adjective. For example, it’s a ‘frontline’ experience, but the politicians visited the ‘front line’.

When to capitalise

Many style guides have their own style on when and what to capitalise. But dictionaries can give you a good idea of what the most common form is for something.

For a long time, ‘Internet’ was capitalised. Then the trend was to use the lowercase ‘internet’, which is now the most common and preferred form. In some instances, the trend is the other way. When writing of First Nations ancestral lands, we now write ‘Country’ rather than ‘country’.

American or Aussie?

A topic sure to ignite passions is whether we use ‘American’ or ‘British’ spelling. I put these in inverted commas because commonly held perceptions of what is ‘American’ spelling are not always correct. Nevertheless, we are all familiar with the common ‘Americanisms’ when it comes to spelling: using ‘-ize’ rather than ‘-ise’; using ‘-or’ rather than ‘–our’.
While historically Australia has stuck to British spelling, it is also common to find American spelling. Australian dictionaries often allow for both, but the British style will be the preferred form.

Tip: If you want to be sure about Australian spelling, make sure you use an Australian dictionary.

Dictionaries base their content on research. They are therefore one of the most reliable sources for the latest information about language. It is always worth checking the dictionary!

You can find related information on the Style Manual’s ‘Spelling’ page.

This article was first published in the October 2023 Style Manual newsletter. 

Dr Amanda Laugesen is the director of the Australian National Dictionary Centre and chief editor of The Australian national dictionary: Australian words and their origins.