Move over, Webster. Watch your back, American Heritage. Catch you later, Oxford. There’s a new sheriff in town—Google.
Like most people, I use Google every day for business and personal searches. I also use it as a spell checker by typing in the word to see if the search engine redlines my attempt. If I am wrong, Google nearly always suggests a correct alternative based on a variety of online sources.* This process is much faster than opening a physical dictionary or logging on to a dictionary service.
However, Google occasionally offers a correction that doesn’t account for stylistic variety. For example, the search engine always spells copy editor as two words despite the fact that copyeditor is also a widely accepted format. The American Heritage Dictionary, 5th Edition lists it as one word, while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online prefers the two-word version. The Oxford English Dictionary Online subscription site says that it is two words, but the Oxford free site includes both versions.
So, should we follow Google or should we adhere to our established dictionary of choice? For me, the answer comes down to search engine optimization (SEO). When I am working on a print document or formal web copy for a targeted audience, I always consult a physical dictionary because it provides the security of stagnation: I have the actual book to back up my decisions if a concern arises months or even years from now. Google, on the other hand, can (and probably does) change its spell-check function whenever it likes.
Conversely, when I am working on casual or conversational copy for the web, such as a blog post or product description, I turn to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary Online or the subscription version of the Oxford Dictionary Online. But, I defer to Google when dealing with a potential search term. Why? Because most website visitors will defer to Google. And the web content that most closely matches the search term usually receives the highest position on the search engine results page.
Do you hear that sound growing in the distance? It is the collective grumble of chalky English teachers combined with the worried sighs of Luddite lexicographers…
*I could not locate Google’s official list of spelling guides; however, Google linked my recent spelling queries to the following sources: