Definition of Usage Labels and Notes in English Dictionaries

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In a dictionary or glossary, a label or brief passage that indicates particular limitations on the use of a word, or particular contexts or registers in which the word customarily appears is called a usage note or label

Common usage labels include chiefly American, chiefly British, informal, colloquial, dialectal, slang, pejorative, and so on.


  • "In general, usage labels provide specific information about the domain of application of the definition. In the more abstract sense ..., a usage label is to be taken as a higher-level instruction, as a meta-linguistic device. This means that it cannot be equated with a definition itself: it restricts the definition to a certain context. The definition of a word given by a dictionary entry is intended for a group of users belonging to those who speak or want to speak the standard form of the language of the dictionary in question. It is with respect to the standard use of a language that usage labels find their justification:
    Dollar and buck have the same meaning, but differ in another way. Buck is informal in style, so it would not be a suitable word to use in a business letter. Information about the style of the word, or the kind of situation in which it is normally used, is provided in the dictionary. 
    ​(Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, p. F27)​
  • In this example two words are asymmetrically related to a norm: buck is marked as informal, whereas dollar has a default value. ... Usage labels like (inf.) or (vulg.) find their justification in helping to choose appropriately between alternative words applicable to the same situation. Sometimes there are entire ranges of alternatives, as in the domain of sexual words providing a host of (near-)synonyms ranging from the extremely formal to the utterly vulgar." (Henk Verkuyl, Maarten Janssen, and Frank Jansen, "The Codification of Usage by Labels." A Practical Guide to Lexicography, ed. by Piet van Sterkenburg. John Benjamins, 2003)

Usage Note for dialogue in The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language

"In recent years the verb sense of dialogue meaning 'to engage in an informal exchange of views' has been revived, particularly with reference to communication between parties in institutional or political contexts.

Although Shakespeare, Coleridge, and Carlyle used it, this usage today is widely regarded as jargon or bureaucratese. Ninety-eight percent of the usage panel rejects the sentence Critics have charged that the department was remiss in not trying to dialogue with representatives of the community before hiring the new officers."
(The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed.

Houghton Mifflin, 2006)

Usage Notes in Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

"Definitions are sometimes followed by usage notes that give supplementary information about such matters as idiom, syntax, semantic relationship, and status. ...

"Sometimes a usage note calls attention to one or more terms with the same denotation as the main entry:

water moccasin n ... 1. a venomous semiaquatic pit viper (Agkistrodon piscivorus) chiefly of the southeastern U.S. that is closely related to the copperhead--called also cottonmouth, cottonmouth moccasin

The called-also terms are in italic type. If such a term falls alphabetically more than a column away from the main entry, it is entered at its own place with the sole definition being a synonymous cross-reference to the entry where it appears in the usage note:

cotton mouth ... n ...: WATER MOCCASIN
cottonmouth moccasin ... n ...: WATER MOCCASIN

"Sometimes ​a usage note is used in place of a definition. Some function words (as conjunctions and prepositions) have little or no semantic content; most interjections express feelings but are otherwise untranslatable into meaning, and some other words (as oaths and honorific titles) are more amenable to comment than to definition."
(Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition.

Merriam-Webster, 2004)

Two Types of Usage Note

"We describe two types of usage note in this section, the first with a broad range of relevance throughout the dictionary and the second focusing on the headword of the entry to which it is attached.

Subject-oriented usage note. This type of note has as its focus a group of words relating to one subject, and it is normally crossreferenced from all the headwords it applies to. It's a useful way of avoiding repeating the same information in entries all over the dictionary. ...

Local usage note. Local usage notes can contain many different types of information relating specifically to the headword of the entry where they are found. ... [T]he sample usage note from the MED [Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners] is fairly standard, pointing out the difference in usage between the headword although and its synonym though."

(B. T. Atkins and Michael Rundell, The Oxford Guide to Practical Lexicography. 2008)

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Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Usage Labels and Notes in English Dictionaries." ThoughtCo, Oct. 6, 2017, Nordquist, Richard. (2017, October 6). Definition of Usage Labels and Notes in English Dictionaries. Retrieved from Nordquist, Richard. "Definition of Usage Labels and Notes in English Dictionaries." ThoughtCo. (accessed October 17, 2017).