Monday, April 2, 2012

If Definitions were more like Language

As an ESL teacher, I get asked to explain the meanings of words pretty much every time I'm in the classroom.  ("What's a bamboo shoot?  Is that like a shot of alcohol?" became a topic of discussion in my class last week.)  After years of practice, I've gotten pretty good at explaining words and their interesting nuances.  Sometimes I write "definitions," too - and sometimes I need a dictionary to help me with that.  But what I often find is more useful to my students is when I write a series of examples (common uses of the word) on the board so they can develop their own intuitive sense of what the word means.

Given that, when I read this interesting article in the NY Times about the website and its new approach to defining words, I was immediately overtaken by geeky excitement.  It's a cool website doing something innovative with literacy!  What could be more full of geeky fun than that?

What's so exciting about Wordnik?  They seek to do for definitions in an online format what I do for my learners.  That is, they give examples - context - equal weight and billing alongside definitions.  And why not?  As the NYT article pointed out so well, the standard dictionary definition format was developed for a medium in which space is limited.  Brevity and conciseness are necessary in a paper dictionary, else the thing would quickly become too unweidly.  So, examples of the word used in context are sacrificed in place of (sometimes difficult to parse) definitions.  This is obviously not the case with a website.  The website can continue to grow and branch and take up as much space as is needed to get across the real meaning of a word.  Enter

Take these examples of the Wordnik entry for "suspense."  Which one best conveys meaning?  I find myself thinking that they work best in tandem - the definitions and the examples reinforcing each other.  Wordnik is on to something, I think.  What do you think?  Leave me a comment or send me a tweet @swbrandt.

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