Abstract

This paper uses a quantitative method to trace the development of definition style in successive editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary from 1898 to 2003. The research focuses especially on nominal constructions that typically occur in definitions, such as a state of being annoyed, act of annoying, one who annoys, that which annoys. The goal of the paper is threefold: firstly, to explore the variation in the selection of category nouns/pronouns across the editions; secondly, to investigate the editorial preferences for use of particular nominal constructions over the years; and thirdly, to verify the editors’ claims regarding the extent of revisions of the Collegiate Dictionary. On the basis of a corpus of definitions drawn from each edition, the paper shows improvements in definition style. The range of category nouns used in recent editions is wider and semantically more specific compared to the early editions, while nominal constructions are more complex.

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