How are dictionary examples chosen?
We often receive queries about the example sentences on OxfordDictionaries.com. Some people assume that they are written by the lexicographers who produce the definitions, but in fact they are chosen from real-life examples collected on Oxford’s corpora—vast databases of text drawn from many publications, websites, and other sources. Oxford takes an evidence-based approach to lexicography, meaning that all entries must be based on actual examples of the word in use.
The ideal example sentence
Choosing a good example sentence is just as difficult as writing a good definition. Lexicographers use software to analyse examples of a word in order to determine the most typical manner in which it is used. The ideal example supports its definition by showing the word or sense in a typical grammatical and semantic context, in combination with other words it is statistically associated with, thereby reflecting the observed reality of English usage. The best examples don’t draw attention to themselves—they are so ordinary as to be downright boring. Dictionary examples should never include content that is likely to distract from the essential information the entry is trying to convey about how a word is used.
Needless to say, as in any human enterprise, the selection of example sentences sometimes falls short of the ideal. Often, a real-world example beautifully captures a particular nuance of meaning or usage but involves distractingly peculiar or perplexing details (this phenomenon inspired a fiction project treating dictionary examples as Dadaesque ready-mades). In more troubling cases, a poorly chosen example sentence might inadvertently repeat factually incorrect, prejudiced, or offensive statements from the source. These judgements are subjective, but we do our best to eliminate such examples, and are grateful when readers point them out to us so that we can review our content; in some cases, cultural sensitivities may have evolved since a particular example was originally chosen.
Problematic dictionary examples
In the case of an example which has recently received much attention, of the phrase “rabid feminist” to exemplify the sense of rabid meaning ‘having or proceeding from an extreme or fanatical support of or belief in something’, the example is an accurate representation of the meaning of the word: rabid is used in this way to denigrate the noun it modifies, and the real-life sentence from which the example was taken involved someone denigrating a person described as being a feminist. However, it was a poorly chosen example in that the controversial and impolitic nature of the example distracted from the dictionary’s aim of describing and clarifying meaning. A more generic example, like “rabid extremist” or “rabid fan”, would also have been supported by evidence on our corpora, and would have illustrated the meaning of the word without those negative impacts.
OxfordDictionaries.com is constantly revising its entries and adding new material to reflect changes in English vocabulary and usage. Our staff endeavours to proactively identify and amend problematic definitions and examples, but with hundreds of thousands of definitions and examples this is a long-term, ongoing task, and it is very helpful when readers notify us of items requiring attention so that we can prioritize them for review. Fortunately, we are able to implement such changes much more rapidly in our online dictionary than it is feasible to do in print.