Got language questions? Your dictionary probably has the answers

In the late 1990s, a friend told me she had used the word “exponentially” in a debate with her brother-in-law.

“That’s not a word!” her brother-in-law insisted.

“Of course it is,” my friend replied.

“No, it’s not! And I’ll prove it!”

The brother-in-law then stormed out of the house and into the frontyard of the next-door neighbor, who was working on his lawn, and demanded, “Is ‘exponentially’ a word?”

This would have been perfectly reasonable if it happened in the early 1800s and the neighbor’s mailbox said “N. Webster.” But near the turn of the millennium, when nearly every house in the country contained a dictionary, this ask-a-random-person fact-check strategy was telling. And the unfortunate reality it revealed is still true in the age of Google: Most people don’t know the value of a dictionary.

Dictionaries have a lot more to offer than just word definitions. They also show you different forms of a word, like the adverb form in this entry from Webster’s New World College Dictionary: “exponential … 2. of or increasing by extraordinary proportions — exponentially, adv.”

Dictionaries also tell you how to form tricky plurals, pronounce a word, use an idiom correctly and whether a noun can be used as a verb. Here, in my recent column, are just a few examples of the great stuff you can find in a dictionary.

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