Chapter 12 – Aids to Reading (part 2 of 3)

HOW TO USE REFERENCE BOOKS

There are many kinds of reference books. In the following section we will confine ourselves mainly the two most used kinds, dictionaries and encyclopedias. However, many of the things we will have to say apply to other kinds of reference books as well.

It is not always realized, yet it is nevertheless true, that a good deal of knowledge is required before you can use a reference book well. Specifically, four kinds of knowledge are required.

First, have some idea, however vague it may be, of what you want to know. … Another way to say this is that you must be able to ask a reference book an intelligible question.

Second, you must know where to find out what you want to know. You must know what kind of question you are asking, and which kinds of reference books answer that kind of question. … You must have a fair overall knowledge of all of the major types of reference books before you can you can use any one type effectively.

Third, you must know how the particular work is organized. … Thus there is an art of reading reference books, just as there is an art to reading anything else. … Do not try to use a reference book before getting the editor’s advice on how to use it.

Of course, not all kinds of questions can be answered by reference books. You will not find in any reference book the answers to the three questions that God asks the angel in Tolstoy’s story, What Men Live By – namely, “What dwells in man?” “What is not given to man?” and “What do men live by?” … and there are many such questions … Only those things about which men generally and conventionally agree are to be found in reference books. Unsupported opinions have no business there, though they sometimes creep in.

As you can see, we have just been suggesting that there is a fourth requirement for the intelligent use of reference books. You must know what you want to know; you must know in what reference work to find it; you must know how to find it in the reference work; and you must know that it is considered knowable by the authors and compilers of the book. All this indicates that you must know a good deal before you can use a work of reference. Reference books are useless to people who know nothing. They are not guidelines to the perplexed.

HOW TO USE A DICTIONARY

Dictionaries are full of arcane knowledge and witty oddments. Over and above that, of course, they have their more sober employments. To make the most of these, one has to know how to read the special kind of book a dictionary is.

This fact is relevant to the rules for using a dictionary well, as an extrinsic aid to reading. The first rule of reading any book is to know what kind of book it is. That means knowing what the author’s intention was and what sort of thing you can expect to find in his work. If you look upon a dictionary merely as a spelling book or a guide to pronunciation, you will use it accordingly, which is to say not well. If you realize that it contains a wealth of historical information, crystallized in the growth and development of language, you will pay attention, not merely to the variety of meanings listed under each word, but also to their order and relation.

Words can be looked at in four ways.

  1. WORDS ARE PHYSICAL THINGS – writable words and speakable sounds. There must, therefore, be uniform ways of spelling and pronouncing them, though the uniformity is often spoiled by variations, and in any event is not as eternally important as some of your teachers may have indicated.
  2. WORDS ARE PARTS OF SPEECH – Each single word plays a grammatical role in the more complicated structure of a phrase or sentence. The same word can vary in different usages, shifting from one part of speech to another, especially in a non-inflected language like English.
  3. WORDS ARE SIGNS – They have meanings, not one but many. These meanings are related in various ways. Sometimes they shade from one into another; sometimes a word will have two or more sets of totally unrelated meanings. Through their meanings, different words are related to one another – as synonyms sharing in the same meaning even though they differ in shading; or as antonyms through opposition or contrast of meanings. Furthermore, it is in their capacity as signs that we distinguish words as proper or common names (according as they name just one thing or many that are alike in some respect); and as concrete or abstract names (according as they point to something we can sense, or refer to some aspect of things that we can understand by thought but not observe through our senses).
  4. WORDS ARE CONVENTIONAL – they are man-made signs. That is why every word has a history, a cultural career in the course of which it goes through ceratain transformations. The history of words is given by their etymological derivation from original word-roots, prefixes, and suffixes; it includes the account of their physical changes, both in spelling and pronunciation; it tells of the shifting meanings, and which among them are archaic and obsolete, which are current and regular, and which are idiomatic, colloquial, or slang.

A good dictionary will answer all of these four different kinds of questions about words. The art of using a dictionary consists in knowing what questions to ask about words and how to find the answers. We have suggested the questions. The dictionary itself tells you how to find the answers.

As such, it is a perfect self-help book, because it tells you what to pay attention to and how to interpret the various abbreviations and symbols it uses in giving you the four varieties of information about words. Anyone who fails to consult the explanatory notes and the list of abbreviations at the beginning of dictionary has only himself to blame if he is not able to use it well.