ISLE 5 Conference Workshops

7. Grammatical Information in Dictionaries of English

Bas Aarts (University College London) & Kate Wild (Oxford English Dictionary, UK)


This workshop aims to bring together lexicographers and researchers to discuss the role and treatment of grammatical information in English dictionaries.


Tuesday 17 July

14:30-14:40  Welcome and introduction
14:40-15:10 Margaret Deuter - Grammatical information in ELT dictionaries
15:10-15:40 Valerie Gorman - The impact of grammatical terms and labels on dictionary users
15:40-16:10 Charlotte Brewer - Grammatical prescriptivism in the OED
16:10-16:30 Coffee Break
16:30-17:00 Kate Wild - Using corpora for grammatical analysis for the OED
17:00-17:30 Edmund Weiner - Fuzzy grammar in the OED
17:30 Closing remarks

All timings are approximate.

The role and purpose of grammatical information in dictionaries

Over a century ago Henry Sweet wrote that ‘grammar deals with those phenomena of language which can be brought under general rules, while the dictionary deals with isolated phenomena’ (Sweet 1899 [1900]:126), and similar statements have often been made since (e.g. Bloomfield 1933: 274; Jackson 1985:53). More recently, there has been a shift towards regarding vocabulary and grammar not as fundamentally distinct but rather as ‘the same things seen by different observers’ (Halliday 1992:630), but as Béjoint (2010: 40) notes, ‘[f]or lexicographers,..the current rapprochement [between grammar and the lexicon] is not much help: if there is no difference between lexical information and grammatical information, then the dictionary can contain anything, and the limit is only practical’. Moreover, even if only irregular or unpredictable grammatical features are covered in a dictionary, it is often not a straightforward matter to determine predictability. To take just one example: English transitive verbs of emotion such as amuse, embarrass, and shock can generally undergo the middle alternation, as in She embarrasses easily (see Levin 1993: 189); should such usages be mentioned in a dictionary at the relevant verbs, or does this information belong in a grammar? The question is complicated for a historical dictionary like the OED, which covers formerly predictable grammatical behaviour that is now obsolete or rare (such as the passival, or the perfect formed with be). Furthermore, such behaviour may be predictable in itself, but unpredictable in being relevant to the semantic behaviour or development of some words but not others.

From a pragmatic point of view, one might also question the purpose of grammatical information in dictionaries. When bilingual or monolingual learners’ dictionaries are used for encoding purposes, grammatical information has the function of enabling users to generate grammatically correct utterances; but such information in dictionaries for native speakers – which are generally used for decoding – is of less obvious value (Svensén 1993: 89) and is perhaps ignored by most users (Atkins and Rundell 2008: 400).

Grammatical classification and terminology in dictionaries

Although there is debate about how much grammatical detail belongs in a dictionary, there is no doubt that most dictionaries do include some grammatical information (Landau 1984: 114-8): most general-purpose dictionaries for native speakers indicate parts of speech, irregular inflexional forms, transitivity of verbs, and countability of nouns; learners’ dictionaries often give more detailed coverage of constructional and complementation patterns; and large historical dictionaries such as the OED additionally describe grammatical features particular to earlier periods of English.

Lexicographers must, then, make decisions regarding grammatical classification and terminology, but the rationale for such decisions is often opaque to users. In the prefatory material to the first edition of the OED there is much discussion of etymology and spelling, for example, but almost nothing about grammatical matters, perhaps because the editors ‘assum[ed] that there was a generally accepted model of grammar for the English language’ (Weiner 2016: 221). Modern dictionaries tend to list and gloss the grammatical terms used, but still often fail to explain why particular terms and categories – which imply a particular model – were chosen. Also, the rigour of the grammatical analysis underlying the information provided in dictionaries is sometimes questionable (Hartmann and James 1998:64), and it has been shown that dictionaries are not always internally consistent in their grammatical descriptions (see e.g. Van der Meer 2007).

Another issue is that of classification: dictionaries tend to impose strictly distinct part-of-speech categories, but in reality many types of word – such as participial modifiers and verbal nouns – cannot be neatly categorized (see Weiner 2016 on such cases in the OED). This issue would benefit from wider discussion, especially in light of recent interest in grammatical 'fuzziness' (see e.g. Aarts, 2007, Aarts et al. 2004).

Questions for discussion

We invite contributions investigating any of the following questions or related issues:

  • What kinds of grammatical information belong in a dictionary? What are the different functions of grammars and dictionaries, and how do they overlap?
  • To what extent can grammatical behaviour be distinguished from semantic behaviour? Is it possible or desirable to leave ‘predictable’ grammatical behaviour to grammars?
  • What is the purpose of (particular kinds of) grammatical information in (particular kinds of) dictionaries?
  • To what extent should a dictionary (explicitly or implicitly) follow a particular grammatical model or theory, in terms of both classification and terminology?
  • How can complex grammatical facts best be expressed in the often compressed format of a dictionary?
  • In a historical dictionary such as the OED, can a single model be applied to describe a grammatical system which has changed significantly?
  • How do/should dictionaries deal with 'fuzzy' grammatical categories?

We would especially welcome contributions focusing on the OED.


Aarts, B. (2007) Syntactic gradience: The nature of grammatical indeterminacy. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Aarts, B. et al. (eds.) (2004) Fuzzy Grammar: A Reader. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Atkins, B.T.S. and M. Rundell (2008) The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Béjoint, H. (2010) The Lexicography of English. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Bloomfield, L. (1933) Language. New York: Henry Holt

Halliday, M. (1992) ‘Language as System and Language as Instance’ in J. Svartvik (ed.), Directions in Corpus Linguistics. Berlin: Mouton

Hartmann, R.R.K. and G. James (1998) Dictionary of Lexicography. London and New York: Routledge

Jackson, H. (1985) ‘Grammar in the Dictionary’ in R. Ilson (ed.), Dictionaries, Lexicography and Language Learning. Oxford: Pergamon Press

Landau, S. (1984) Dictionaries: the Art and Craft of Lexicography. New York: Scribner

Levin, B. (1993) English Verb Classes and Alternations. Chicago: University of Chicago Press

OED: First edition: Murray, J. A. H. et al. (eds.) (1884–1928) The Oxford English Dictionary (First issued as A New English Dictionary on Historical Principles.) Second edition: Simpson, J. A. and E. S. C. Weiner (eds.) (1989). Third edition (in progress): Simpson, J. A. and M. Proffitt (eds.) (March 2000–) <>

Svensén, B. (1993) Practical Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

Sweet, H. (1899 [1900]) The Practical Study of Languages. New York: Henry Holt

Van der Meer, G. (2007) ‘The Learner’s Dictionaries and Grammar’ in H. Gottlieb and J. E. Mogensen (eds.) Dictionary Visions, Research and Practice. Amsterdam and Philadelphia: John Benjamins

Weiner, E. (2016) ‘Grammatical Analysis and Grammatical Change’ in P. Durkin (ed.) The Oxford Handbook of Lexicography. Oxford: Oxford University Press

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