Look it up!

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This blog was originally posted on January 27th, 2015.

Working on some medical texts last week, I was continually impressed with the ease of looking up unfamiliar words. Pretty much without fail, if I right-clicked on a medical term, Adobe Acrobat would drop a box with the last choice being Look up “xxx”:

From that choice, I could click through to a screen like this one:

Pretty handy! Two clicks from term to definition and pronunciation. The entry continues with alternate forms, etymology, a British dictionary entry (Collins), and a medical dictionary entry (American Heritage Stedman’s Medical Dictionary).

Maybe a Latinate compound like immunogenic is too simple, since a reader can practically figure it out from the two root words. However, as I kept using the Look Up feature, it was rarely stumped. Here are the main entries, for dacarbazine and lysine:

Wow, an Unabridged Random House Dictionary entry on decarbazine, complete with a clear pronunciation and the chemical formula. And a Random House Dictionary entry on lysine.

Dictionary.com, according to information on their Web site, is part of a Nasdaq-listed company (IACI), located in Oakland, CA. Their site is literate, sprinkled with interesting quotes about words, and it portrays the work environment of a lively Bay Area culture, with their mission being to “to delight and inspire anyone using the English language by being the most innovative and comprehensive digital source for everything related to words. We provide resources that help people accurately define, pronounce, and apply words in the moment.” They manage to do so supported by fairly non-intrusive on-screen ads.

That Dictionary.com provides these resources for free with such easy access “in the moment” makes Dictionary.com a superb resource for writers who wish to help themselves. The threshold is now so low for looking up words in the dictionary that individual inertia is no longer a concern.

Similar look-up functions exist with a right-click in Microsoft Word, though not quite as slick as those in Acrobat:

The MS Word allows a Bing search on the term, along with access to several Microsoft proprietary tools, like Encarta. But what you don’t get is immediate access to two of the English language’s best dictionaries,Random House and American Heritage. Too bad, because this is where “in the moment” help is really helpful.

As we work with students to help them become independent learners, the tools under right-click are worth exploring.

About the Author
Dr. Stephen A. Bernhardt is recently retired from the University of Delaware, where he held the Andrew B. Kirkpatrick, Jr. Chair in Writing, from which position he promoted strong writing and communication skills across the university. He is the author of Writer's Help, a Web-based reference handbook from Bedford/St. Martin’s, now in Version 2.0. He teaches courses in scientific and technical communication, first year composition, computers and writing, and grammar and style. He taught previously at New Mexico State University and Southern Illinois University-Carbondale. You can learn more about Steve at his Web site.