By Vie Stallings Herlocker
Research. Whether you love it or loathe it, writers must be researchers.
Perhaps you’ve diligently researched details for your nonfiction subject or your novel’s physical setting, characters, and timeline. That’s a great start, but what about research at the word and phrase level—do your words convey the meaning you intended? If you’re writing a novel, are your words and phrases accurate to the time period?
As an editor, I find that even meticulous writers sometimes slip up at the word or phrase level. While there are many scholarly resources for linguistic research, I’d like to focus on two easily accessed online references that I use regularly:
- Merriam Webster 11th Collegiate Dictionary (free online version, and free phone app)
- Google Books Ngram Viewer (free online site)
Merriam Webster 11th is the book industry’s standard dictionary. You’ll find definitions and correct spelling of words, including trickier items like hyphenated, open, or closed compounds—and as the TV ads say, “But wait! There’s More!” Merriam Webster also notes part(s) of speech, word origin, and the year a word or phrase was first seen in written language. Another bonus of the online Merriam Webster is a feature called “Time Traveler.” This exhaustive list of words first noted within a particular year is a fabulous research find for writers.
Google Books Ngram Viewer draws upon Google’s corpus of digitized books and magazines between the years 1500 and 2019. This online tool allows you to research individual or multiple words and phrases within a range of years and in a certain language. Advanced searches can search a word by part of speech, and more. The resulting graph shows the percentage of print usage through the years for each search item.
How these tools helped me in a recent edit.
I came across the word cookware in a manuscript set in 1899, and my editor antennae went up. Were pots and pans called cookware then?
I checked Merriam Webster first. The first known printed use of the word was 1922. What would people have called cookware previously? I looked at the definition for a clue: “utensils used for cooking.”
Next, I opened Google’s Ngram tool. I selected American English and set my date range from 1850 to 1950. In the search bar, I entered my search words and terms, separated by commas: cookware, cooking utensils, pots and pans. As you see from the screen shot of my search (with my added highlights) the Ngram confirmed that cookware was not a period appropriate term for this manuscript. The Ngram page also links to specific books or magazines that contain each of the search terms by years. From there, I learned that the earliest usage was in magazine advertisements for sets of pots and pans in the 1920s.
Google Books Ngram Search Result
Do you have a favorite research tool? Would you share a favorite in the comments—whether it’s research for word usage, characterization, settings, occupations, hobbies, technical terms, or whatever! Let’s talk research, writer friends!
(Photo courtesy of FreeDigitalPhotos.net and Stuart Miles.)
Research. Whether you love it or loathe it, writers must be researchers. via @Vie_Herlocker (Click to tweet.)
Vie Herlocker is the associate editor for Surry Living Magazine. She offers freelance editing services through Cornerstone-Ink. While her heart is in editing, her writing has been published in many of the Guideposts family of magazines, The Christian Communicator, and several compilation books. She’s also cowritten a motivational book for the educational field and ghostwritten a memoir. She and her husband recently moved to Nashville, TN.