online dictionaries - online grammars

Discussion in 'Comments and Suggestions' started by EStjarn, Feb 9, 2014.

  1. EStjarn

    EStjarn Senior Member

    A fair percentage of WR threads discuss questions concerning the meaning of words in specific contexts. At the disposal of participants in those discussions is a rich supply of online dictionaries, including the WordReference dictionaries, which help structure the discussions.

    About as many threads discuss questions concerning grammar. In those cases, however, the supply of reliable sources to refer to is more scanty and patchy. Speaking of the EO forum only, repliers often refer to sites such as the Capital Community College guide to grammar and writing and the University of Sussex guide to punctuation when backing up their answers.

    I am not saying those sources are dubious, yet I would not regard them as either comprehensive or authoritative. They are perfect up to a certain level of proficiency. When askers have moved beyond that level, it is somehow unsatisfactory to continue citing them.

    I think that ideally a language site such as WordReference should feature reliable reference sources not only in the form of dictionaries but also grammars, as it would give askers and repliers a common platform to start their grammar discussions from.

    This idea occurred to me a few weeks ago when participating in a thread discussing whether you or yourself should be used in While considering what jobs are suitable for you/yourself, you should... The thread ended up getting 70 posts, not because there were many participants (80% of the posts were submitted by two repliers), but because the most active members each held a firm opinion as to what was correct while being unable to back up their respective positions with an authoritative source. Once a source was found (toward the end of the thread), the discussion quieted. Said a replier at one point: "I can't believe this thread has 64 posts!:eek:"
    Last edited: Feb 9, 2014
  2. Paulfromitaly

    Paulfromitaly MODerator

    Brescia (Italy)
  3. EStjarn

    EStjarn Senior Member

    With regard to authority in that specific case, I think to me it's the location of the page that is the problem: the informatics department of a university that I, as a non-native English speaker, have never heard about. It's somewhat strange to me that the best online source we have with regard to punctuation should be located right there.

    I was not familiar with Purdue University either when I opened some months ago a thread in the EO forum asking about a piece of advice on comma use given in its Online Writing Lab section (another relatively popular reference). The first reply the thread got was from a native member saying: "That whole page of advice is rubbish..."

    I'm not suggesting repliers should stop making references to pages, wherever located, that provide easily accesible, accurate advice on grammar or punctuation. I just think that a language website such as WR, which is dedicated to discussing grammar as much as vocabulary, is missing something basic when it provides an authoritative source of vocabulary but none such of grammar.
    As was said above, the problem with authority regarding that particular source lies in my opinion in its location, not in its content or in the author. I have tried to show above that just because a university website sports a grammar section doesn't mean the section is reliable.
    As to specifically naming a grammar title, I understand that, in the case of English, the Rolls Royce of grammars is presently The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. It would go neatly hand in hand with the unabridged Oxford English Dictionary, that is, not the dictionary we have at WordReference.

    Instead, it should be a grammar that in scope and authority is comparable to Collins Concise English Dictionary, that is, the dictionary featured on the forum. I'm not an expert in the field, but one grammar book that would seem to me comparable is Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English.
    Last edited by a moderator: Feb 19, 2014
  4. mkellogg Administrator

    South Florida
    English - US
    Hi EStjarn,

    I've investigated some titles like the ones that you mentioned, but they never seem particularly suited for the web. Long chapters work for books, but not for the internet. (The Longman title that you linked to, looks much better than the others, being divided into short sections.)

    The one type of grammar book that I continue to be interested in getting on the site is an A-Z style grammar reference, such as Fowler's Modern English Usage, the RAE's Diccionario panhispánico de dudas or Manuel Seco's Diccionario de dudas y dificultades. I haven't been successful in getting anything like that to put on the site here, but I still hope to do so someday.

    I'll continue to keep an eye out for something to add to the site.

  5. EStjarn

    EStjarn Senior Member

    Hello Mike,

    Thank you for replying. I'm glad you don't find the idea hopelessly unreasonable. :)
    Yes, I can imagine it's more complicated to adapt the format of a grammar book than that of a dictionary to a user-friendly online source. The scarcity of such sites would seem to suggest that, though I'm sure there are many other reasons for it too.

    However, as you note above, the chapters of grammars are usually divided into sections. Using as an example the Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English an abridged version of the Longman grammar mentioned above (487 instead of 1203 pages), which I happen to have a copy of – I notice it's got three levels, the chapter level being the highest, e.g., 2 Words and word classes [...] 2.2 What are words? [...] 2.2.1 Different senses of the word 'word'.

    I would say that, on average, each chunk of text pertaining to a specific heading corresponds to about the amount of text of a normal book page or less. For example, these are the word counts for the above headings: 2 Words and word classes (65 words), 2.2 What are words? (123 words), 2.2.1 Different senses of the word 'word' (300 words).

    Because of this structured format, which I think is very common with grammar books, I think I can see how it would at least be possible to adapt it to an online version: each chunk of text would have its own page, just like individual dictionary entries have their own pages.

    It should be noted that grammars usually come with a contents section, as well as an index from A-Z. And if there's one thing that the web is good at it is to link pages. In other words, each item in an index and each heading in a table of contents could be linked to the relevant chunks of text.

    Even from the above simplified design, I understand there would be quite a lot of work involved in an adaptation. Nonetheless, because it has not (to my knowledge) been done before in this type of language site, and because the imbalance between online vocabulary sources and grammar sources is a real one, I personally think it would be worth a try, at least in the form of a pilot attempt, providing, of course, that matters concerning copyright could be resolved.
    In the case of Fowler's Modern English Usage, I suppose you are referring to the third edition (1996, revised 2004). For those who are not familiar with it, this is from its description at (where there's also a preview of the book):
    I must say from the above it sounds quite useful. I notice it is, as you say, arranged like a dictionary, and that its format allows it to treat all kinds of topics in a way that a normal grammar book would not.

    I also notice by the advanced search function that the title has been cited in WordReference at least 389 times (though not uniquely, as some of the hits pertain to member quotes), the most recent one in the EO forum in this thread.
  6. Parla Senior Member

    New York City
    English - US
    Most working writers and editors of my acquaintance now rarely if ever consult Fowler's, even in later editions. I clearly can't comment on British usage authorities, but for contemporary US usage, Bryan Garner (Garner's Modern American Usage) is now the authority, in my opinion and that of many of my colleagues.
  7. mkellogg Administrator

    South Florida
    English - US
    Yes, Garner is excellent. I would love to know what many British writers consider an authoritative grammar reference.
  8. Loob

    Loob Senior Member

    English UK
    My primary difficulty in answering your question, Mike, is that I'm not at all sure what sort of reference grammar EStjarn is looking for.

    As far as I can recall, I've referenced four main 'grammar sources' in my posts in English Only:
    (1) Fowler's Modern English Usage: a brilliant, quirky read for first-language speakers/writers of English (the third edition is rather less brilliant/quirky:();
    (2) The Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English: corpus-based, particularly helpful for second-language students in that it distinguishes between the language used in different 'registers' of English: conversation, fiction, news, academic writing;
    (3) Michael Swan's Practical English Usage: an alphabetically-ordered reference source for second-language learners (of British English in particular). I like it because (a) it's clearly written and (b) I usually agree with it:);
    (4) The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language: astounding, huge, and often ground-breaking: I learn something every time I open it.

    Which one of these would I call "authoritative"? None of them, I'm afraid: though they're all, in their different ways, "illuminating" (as are other sources, such as newspaper style guides).

    Perhaps EStjarn could explain in more detail what he's hoping for?
    Last edited: Feb 14, 2014
  9. EStjarn

    EStjarn Senior Member

    I opened the thread to find out whether the idea of WordReference featuring a grammar source would make sense to others too, not just to me. So I am very pleased to note that the discussion continues. :)

    If others - the forum administrator, moderators and members - feel that it indeed makes sense, then determining a suitable grammar source would seem to be the next step. So far, the consensus appears to be that a grammar source would not be a bad thing to have, and so I suppose we're moving on, suggesting sources, if only tentatively.
    I think I see what you mean when distinguishing between authoritative and illuminating. Let's say I took the illuminating quality for granted. Illuminating sources may be, broadly speaking, either authoritative or not. In this particular context, I think of an authoritative source as a source that is generally recognized as reliable, and which both askers and repliers might have at least heard of.

    Titles that include names such as Oxford and Cambridge automatically have that authoritative ring to them in these matters they are to be reckoned with, that's the supposition. It just so happens that to me the names Collins and Longman have something of that quality as well when it comes to providing information concerning linguistics.

    Perhaps instead of authoritative grammar source I should have said recognized grammar source. The recognition works as a quality mark, comparable, perhaps, to being signed up as a native vs. non-native speaker of a language: certain askers don't accept answers from non-native speakers no matter how correct or illuminating those answers might be. It's understandable to a degree, and I suppose I am expressing a similar notion when I argue for that the grammar source ought to be recognized.
    I see a difference between a style guide and a grammar book. A style guide provides standards for writing and designing documents. Although a recognized style guide should be very helpful, it is different from a grammar book, which is a study of the language itself. Certainly there is quite an overlap between the two as regards the information they provide.

    However, in the end this is about what might be possible in practice. Mike has expressed his interest in including a style guide, giving their A-Z format as a reason for why they, rather than regular grammar books, might fit the format of the forum. I am certainly not contrary to that idea. In that sense, I find your mentioning of Swan's Practical English Usage interesting since I've often used it myself as a reference in replies. (The book gets 580 hits using the WordReference advanced search function for the string <"practical English usage" + Swan>.)

    So, in conclusion, I think my view presently is that a grammar book such as Longman Student Grammar of Spoken and Written English or a style guide such as Michael Swan's Practical English Usage would go nicely hand in hand with the forum dictionary, and would go a long way in providing both askers and repliers a common starting point for their exchanges, just like online dictionaries do today whenever the meanings of words are discussed.
    Last edited: Feb 15, 2014
  10. mkellogg Administrator

    South Florida
    English - US
    Getting some grammar reference book would be easy, but getting a specific title is much more difficult. Whatever the case, I will see what I can do to license some of the books that were mentioned here. Don't expect fast progress, though.
  11. EStjarn

    EStjarn Senior Member

    I just noticed is using Collins COBUILD English Usage. (See for example the entry for 'ago').

    It would seem an excellent complement to Collins Concise English Dictionary.

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