Observing Norm, Observing Usage

Lexis in Dictionaries and the Media

by Alessandra Molino (Volume editor) Serenella Zanotti (Volume editor)
©2015 Edited Collection 430 Pages
Series: Linguistic Insights, Volume 195


This volume includes a collection of studies on the interplay between norm and usage in lexis, which is explored by looking at both dictionaries and the media. The title features the polysemous verb to observe, which is used both in the sense of «investigating» use/usage and in that of «respecting» norms. This thematic area is analysed from a synchronic perspective focusing predominantly on the lexis of four European languages, namely English, French, Italian and Spanish, although other languages are occasionally referred to (e.g. Catalan and Danish). The volume comprises nineteen chapters, which provide a wide-ranging, but deeply focused overview of the complex and challenging interrelation between sites and processes of norm formation and the recontextualization, reconfiguration and re-creation of those norms. The book is structured in four thematic sections, which focus on the norm-setting role of dictionaries, the importance of authentic language use in recent lexicographic products, the impact of the Web on language usage as well as on the processes of norm creation and diffusion, and the impact of mass-mediated communication on lexis.
The volume contains contributions in English, French, Italian and Spanish.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Acknowledgements
  • Preface. Norm and Use/Usage: Dichotomy, Convergence or Overlapping?
  • Introduction
  • Section 1: Norm and Usage in Dictionaries
  • The Report of the Death of the General Dictionary is not an Exaggeration
  • From Norm to Usage: Revisiting Italian Borrowings in the Oxford English Dictionary
  • Caribbean English Vocabulary: Setting a Norm through Lexicographic Practice
  • La norma lingüística en el discurso lexicográfico del castellano y el catalán: una primera aproximación
  • Nuevos diccionarios bilingües y nuevo léxico en uso. Il Grande dizionario di Spagnolo de Zanichelli (2012)
  • La norma en la lematización de anglicismos con doble grafía
  • L’“ibrido gergo della moda” nei dizionari italiani della prima metà del Novecento
  • Section 2: Dictionaries and their Implications for Language Learning
  • Dizionari di collocazioni italiane e collocazioni da insegnare nell’uso scritto
  • Right Word or Wrong Word? Lexical Errors in Dictionaries of Common Mistakes for EFL Italian Learners
  • Vague Lexis in Spoken Academic English and in Advanced Corpus-Based Learner’s Dictionaries
  • Section 3: Lexicographic Practices in the Era of Web 2.0
  • Norm and Usage in Online Open-Source Dictionaries: The Case of Fashion Lexis in Urban Dictionary
  • La phraséologie du français dans le Web 2.0 : dictionnaires en ligne, blogs et forums
  • Comment rendre les dictionnaires spécialisés plus performants, plus utiles et plus proches de la réalité ?
  • Section 4: Norm and Usage in the Media
  • Norms, Usage and Linguistic Effects of Downstream Screen Translation
  • Cross-Linguistic Interference into the Italian Dubbing of TV Series: The Cases of Realise, Impressive and Excited
  • Observing Translation Norms in Dubbed Audiovisuals: The Case of Vague Language Expressions
  • Mediatizing Prescription and Popular Attitudes to Accent(s) of English. An Investigation of YouTubers’ Comments on Pronunciation
  • Vargas Llosa: creatividad y variación léxicas en el español culto
  • De quelques considérations sur la qualité de la langue et sur la situation linguistique actuelle au Québec
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Series index


Great debts of gratitude are due to Stefania Nuccorini (University of Roma Tre) and Virginia Pulcini (University of Turin) for making this book project possible and for constantly supporting us with their expertise and suggestions throughout the planning and editing processes. The volume stems from a nationally funded research project entitled “Within and Beyond Borders: Usage and Norm in Western European Languages” (PRIN 2009 WFSAAK); the editors extend their sincere thanks to Giovanni Iamartino, principal investigator of the project, for his scientific advice and encouragement. The editors would also like to thank the authors in this volume for their contributions and cooperation, and the anonymous reviewers, who provided insightful and critical comments that helped us to improve the quality of this book. ← 9 | 10 →

← 10 | 11 →


Preface. Norm and Use/Usage: Dichotomy, Convergence or Overlapping?1

1. Introduction

The research project this volume ultimately stems from2 aimed at investigating the relations between norm and use: its title indeed was “From Norm to Use, from Use to Norm; Awareness and Codification”, and it was especially concerned with lexicography, corpora, and the media. Expounding on the title of this volume, “Observing Norms, Observing Usage: Lexis in Dictionaries and in the Media”, and starting from the codified definitions of norm and use/usage in four major monolingual dictionaries of English, Italian, French and Spanish,3 the languages to be analysed in the national project and, together with Catalan, actually investigated in this volume, the considerations offered in this Preface are meant to ‘observe’ the findings reported in the present contributions in the light of the original aim. Special reference is made to the treatment of lexis in Dictionaries and to its use in the Media, to see to what extent norm and use/usage represent the end-points of a cline; whether the boundary between them is not clear-cut, but, rather, blurred; whether ← 11 | 12 → they converge in their definitions and applications; whether they (occasionally) overlap.

2. Dictionary definitions of norm and use/usage

In the OED the noun NORM is defined as follows: “that which is a model or a pattern; a type, a standard. With the; what is usual, typical, standard”. This definition, when applied to the concept of linguistic norm, implicitly and in nuce hinges on the key-words pattern, standard, typical, usual. Each of these has been used, with slightly different senses and implications, in (corpus) linguistics, in lexicography and in media-based and translation studies, the areas with which the contributions to this volume are concerned. In addition a norm is “a standard or pattern of social behavior that is accepted in or expected of a group”, a definition which points to the concept of usage, as reported below, which encompasses socio-linguistic and contextual features.

In English, fine-grained distinctions have been made between use and usage, though these two words have also been employed interchangeably. Just to quote one example that seems especially appropriate for this analysis, Widdowson (1979: 185), with regard to the concept of simplification of lexis in foreign language teaching, defines usage as “the way in which the language system is manifested” and use as “the way in which the language system is realised for the expression of propositions and the performance of illocutionary acts” to express cohesive sequences for coherent communication purposes. In certain approaches to simplification “usage is controlled by use” (Widdowson 1979: 190). Interestingly, in the OED the noun USE in the linguistic sense is not defined but cross-referenced to its synonym USAGE: “the established or customary manner of using a language; the way in which an item of vocabulary, syntax of grammar is normally used, esp. by a specified group or in a particular domain or region”,4 a definition which ← 12 | 13 → does not make any reference to propositional expression or development but which does point to the way in which the “the language system is manifested” in general. It is worth noting that the adverb normally in the OED definition presupposes and highlights a relation with norm in the sense reported above, i.e. according to a model, a pattern, a standard, but also with the adjectives typical and usual, which do not imply any form of set rules; rather, they are concerned with the observation of large quantities of linguistic data, nowadays especially in corpora, pointing to what is customary. Notably usage appears in compounds such as usage-guide, usage-label and usage-panel (group of advisors on language usage).

In the GRADIT, NORMA in its linguistic sense is defined as “insieme di regole e precetti scelti tra gli usi di una lingua secondo un ideale modello estetico o socioculturale”. The nouns regole and precetti (rules and instructions) clearly refer to a linguistically and socially established model, but the second part of the definition “insieme di forme previste potenzialmente dal sistema della lingua” and their actual presence “nella norma di realizzazione del sistema” recalls Coseriu’s socio-cultural concept of norma and of the “realizzazione normale” (1971: 75) of the system of a language (see below).

In its linguistic sense the noun USO is defined as “la lingua usata correntemente dai parlanti comuni”. Once more an adverb, correntemente (commonly rather than currently), highlights an essential feature of the concept of use, i.e. what people say and not what they are supposed to say. Quite interestingly, on the English version of the Accademia della Crusca site, the GRADIT is characterised by the label usage (www.accademiadellacrusca.it/en/).

French NORME, in its linguistic sense, is defined in the Larousse Dictionary in a way strikingly similar to the GRADIT definition, but for the presence of the participle definissant and of modal verb doit: “système d’instructions définissant ce qui doit être choisi parmi les usages d’une langue si on veut se conformer à un certain idéal esthétique ou socioculturel. (La norme se confond alors avec le « bon usage ».)”. At first a clear abstract distinction is established between norme and usage: a norme is a defining system of selecting what is to be chosen among ← 13 | 14 → the different usages of a language; then le bon usage, a type of usage itself, becomes the realization of the norme. The presence of definissant and of doit definitively conveys more than a hint of prescriptivism, “the belief that the grammar of a language should lay down rules to which usage must conform” (Burchfield 1996).

Interestingly, the French expression le bon usage, which, according to the definition above, also refers to an “ideal esthétique ou socioculturel”, is translated into English “correct usage”5 in the Collins Robert French-English, English-French Dictionary. However, according to Coseriu (1971: 77), the concept of norm is not marked by the opposition correct/incorrect; a norm is about “come si dice, non come si deve dire” (about what people say, not about what is to be said: my translation). Thus the concept of norm becomes closer and closer to that of usage. Terminologically speaking, according to Burchfield (1996: 619), normative is equated with prescriptive which is contrasted with descriptive: the latter refers to “language as it is used rather than on how experts say that it should be used”. From the conceptual point of view this statement reinforces Coseriu’s issue and shows that the observation of data is a relevant point.

According to Landau (2001: 217) the noun usage is used in different senses: it “refers to any or all uses of language, spoken or written”; it concerns “the study of good, correct or standard uses of language”; it “may also take in the study of any limitations on use, whether geographic, social or temporal”. He adds that “controversies over good usage have a long history in English” and that they are mostly concerned with attitudes towards it. Notably, Burchfield too had highlighted that “there is no clear boundary between the doctrines of prescriptivism and those of descriptivism, much more an attitude of mind” (1996: 619). Quite relevantly Burchfield, first as Editor to the Supplement to the Oxford English Dictionary and then as Chief-Editor of the Oxford English Dictionaries, started paving the way (see Pinnavaia, this volume) towards major changes in the OED’s attitude towards usage especially in the ← 14 | 15 → field of neologisms, i.e. instances of use, much in line with Murray’s own attitude, clearly expressed for example in a lecture originally given and published in 1900 (here quoted in its 2001 edition). In that lecture Murray also commented on people’s attitude towards “The Dictionary” (by which at the time they meant Johnson’s Dictionary) with reference to an amusing anecdote occurred in 1887 concerning the term allotment as used in agriculture. Contrary to the expectations of a Member of Parliament, “no explanation of the term in this use is to be found in Johnson’s Dictionary” Murray said, for the very good reason that “agricultural allotments had not been thought of in the days of Dr. Johnson” (2001: 6).6 Interestingly an example illustrating the second definition of NORME in the Larousse Dictionary reads “[i]l n’y avait pas d’anormaux quand l’homosexualité ètait la norme”.7 The second definition is “Moyenne des divers usages d’une langue à une époque donnée. (La norme correspond alors à l’institution sociale qui constitue la langue)”.

The definition of USAGE in the Larousse Dictionary strengthens the previous comments: “ensemble des règles et des interdits, en matière grammaticale, phonétique et lexicale, qui caractérisent la langue utilisée par le plus grand nombre de locuteurs à un moment donné et dans un milieu social donné”. This definition further clarifies why “la norme se confond avec le bon usage”.

It becomes now clear that French usage and English usage are translational equivalents only when appropriately modified (bon, good).

In the DRAE, the noun NORMA is defined as “[c]onjunto de criterios lingüísticos que regulan el uso considerado correcto”. A norma is also a “variante lingüística que se considera preferible por ser más culta”. Here the concept of norm is quite different from that of use, since the former rules the correctness of the latter. Significantly, some derived neologisms, typical of “Español culto”, will be included in the next edition of the “diccionario academico” DRAE (Martí Solano, this volume). This not only confirms the role of evolution in lexicography, but also that norms change in time. ← 15 | 16 →

Among the various definitions of USO in the DRAE only the following one seems to indirectly apply to its linguistic sense: “Ejercicio o práctica general de algo”. As such, it is all but impossible to compare it with the definition of norma: the presence of the adjective general could perhaps be read in contrast to culto, but in a purely speculative way.

Different language-specific, lexicographical, and linguistic traditions clearly emerge from the definitions reported above. Their role in, and influence on, the research issues addressed in this volume, as referred to in the next sections, will add to the aim of this preface.

3. Norm and use/usage observed in dictionaries

The once undisputable authority in terms of language use and usage, the General Dictionary, i.e. the guardian of the norm, the source that authorises and forbids, seems to be on its deathbed in its printed form though it is alive and kicking in its online version. But is its traditionally normative role questioned, since online dictionaries allow for constant up-dating, are used in a rather different way and for different purposes? Corpus-based or corpus-driven dictionaries, which constitute the by far greatest majority of recent lexicography, describe the most common usage which is not necessarily the best usage (Béjoint, this volume). Yet, because of their never-ending ease of modification, online editions will go on better and better representing the language, especially its lexis. Representation is indeed a key word; it partakes of the concept of norm, of the concept of use and of the concept of usage. It conveys an idea of institutionalization, of social consensus, and of description.

Unlike the hypothesised destiny of the General Dictionary, specialised lexicography, in the form of Dictionaries of Collocations, really seems flourishing on the Italian scene, as highlighted by the recent publication of four of them. As Marello (this volume) points out, collocations have historically been a relevant part of the Italian lexicographical tradition; nowadays Dictionaries of Italian Collocations – as examples of normal usage – address both native speakers and foreign learners, who, however, need information about what is not a permitted ← 16 | 17 → collocation, rather than undefined variants. Foreign learners might find bilingual dictionaries more functional in this respect.

It is interesting to draw a comparison with Learner’s Dictionaries in connection with didactic purposes, with the use of corpora, and with the relation between norm and usage. Learner’s Dictionaries in the British tradition, being based on large reference corpora, which almost by definition record how language is used rather than how it is to be used, turn out to be more normative than expected, for example with their apparatus of usage notes, usage labels, collocation boxes, typical error corrections, obligatory syntactic patterns, and their accompanying conventions (brackets, bold type, abbreviations, colours, etc.). The very concept of error is based on a prescriptive attitude, well present in existing dictionaries of errors, whereas descriptive error dictionaries are much needed for teaching and learning purposes (Bozzo, this volume). However, the disguised prescriptiveness of Learner’s Dictionaries is in line with their pedagogical purposes and ultimately norm and usage meet in their raison d’être.

With regard to the role of guidance expected from Learner’s Dictionaries, it is worth comparing authentic native speakers’ use/usage, in whatever field, as opposed to non-native speakers’ performance, also in cases in which errors are not concerned. In the case of vague language, underused by non-native speakers according to corpus data, Learner’s Dictionaries prove disappointing; relevant pragmatic information is either missing or only partially recorded (Molino, this volume). Their definitions of general extenders, as an example of vague language, seem even vaguer than the definienda. The following quotation seems relevant to the point: “[a]n adequate definition of a vague concept must aim not at precision but at vagueness: it must aim at precisely that level of vagueness which characterises the concept itself” (Wierzbicka 1985, quoted in Hanks 2013: 8). However, dictionary definitions and examples of (authentic) use serve different, hopefully convergent, purposes.

The role of corpora associated with uncovering typical occurrences of language use, paying attention to qualitative corpus query outputs, turns into a powerful assist in determining (good) usage, itself a (type of) norm. Significantly the title of a paper by Stubbs on the use of authentic data “to present findings about language use” is “Corpus ← 17 | 18 → evidence for norms of lexical collocations” (1995: 245) (my emphasis). Admittedly “the balance between creativity and fixed phrases” is questioned (Stubbs 1995: 256), thus touching on one of the major issues, lexical innovation, concerning the relation between norm and use/usage as already hinted at.

As shown by many contributors to this volume (Coll Pérez et al.; Piraro; Bermejo; De Hériz; Sergio; Liczner), on the basis of different analytical approaches, different tools and different aims, lexical innovation in general and its incorporation in dictionaries represent a crucial passage with reference to corpus data (use/usage), in connection with different languages and their varieties, orthography, the treatment of specialised lexis and of specialised terminology, particularly for communicative purposes in the field of translation. Equally relevant is the role played by foreignisms and their lexicographical status (Pinnavaia, this volume).

As emerges from the previous considerations, dictionaries are still perceived as a guide, and their relation with corpora is manifold. Somehow surprisingly, Coll Pérez et al. (this volume), who refer to the norma de autoridad, the model proposed by language institutions for Spanish and Catalan, found that “el diccionario normativo tiende a presentar más coincidencias con los corpus textuales que el diccionario de uso”. In a different setting, as shown by the analysis of both descriptive and prescriptive dictionaries of Caribbean English (Furiassi, this volume), their norm-setting role is still paramount, especially when dealing with lexical features in different varieties. Yet, as the author suggests, the search for a shared norm should be set against not-yet-available corpus data.

At the same time, the dictionary seems to remain safely anchored in the use/usage ground independently of its sources, provided these are reliable. The issue of both source and output reliability is at stake in the so-called “do-it-yourself” and “profane” lexicography (respectively in Lopriore and Murano, this volume), which no longer is, nor does it aim to be, the repository of a norm, though with considerable differences among the various and variously compiled repertoires and dictionaries proper. ← 18 | 19 →

4. Norm and use/usage observed in the media

It seems that the concept of norm is being (has been) redefined in translation studies, in which norms are connected with “descriptive analysis rather than prescriptive sets of options” (Toury, quoted in Baker 1990: 190). According to Gottlieb (this volume), in screen translation, both as subtitling and as dubbing, there are common linguistic and filmic norms, with inner conflicting spoken and written constraints, for example orality vs. grammaticality. However, descriptive analyses have shown how the emergence of translationese, the repeated use of formulae, translational clichés and calques from English, the dominant language non only in the real but also in the fictional world, is leading to the systematic influence of English, as the source language, on the target language, especially Italian. Taken to the extremes, in the case of dubbese (the type of language use typically heard in dubbed films, sit-coms etc.), that influence is apparently leading to the establishment of a third norm (Pavesi 2008), vis-à-vis the source language norm and the target language norm. Dubbese feeds itself and in so doing reinforces itself as such and as a prospective norm: yet, more data is needed to confirm or disprove this hypothesis. It seems, however, that a certain amount of translational interference is affecting the process of borrowing Anglicisms: in Italy, “the shift from accepting Anglicisms in dubbese to expecting them in mainstream speech is well under way” (Gottlieb, this volume). This might well be the case, but probably the development of this phenomenon, its eventual integration in language use, its turning into acknowledged usage, and its final inclusion in dictionaries still have a long way to go.

The latter point is somehow confirmed, again with regard to English-into-Italian dubbing, by corpus data according to which audio-visual translators pay much attention to the relevant norms of Italian, as attested in dictionaries, as far as lexical choice is concerned (Minutella/Pulcini, this volume). Furthermore, dubbed Italian occasionally seems more conservative and less open to incorporating Anglicisms than dictionaries themselves, thus somehow overruling them, this being the case of Italian realizzare in the sense of ‘to understand’, which is recorded in Italian dictionaries, but avoided in dubbing. ← 19 | 20 →

However, in the field of translation, operative, rather than abstract, general norms stem from the empirical observation of regularities in translated texts, and as such offer possible solutions to further translational problems. Some of them, for example, omission or explicitation, have long been recognised as generally useful, but their application is subject to or limited by the target language norms, in the codified sense of this word. The analysis of dubbed Italian with reference to vague language and its discourse features seems to confirm this point, but further development in this area could take place only comparing Italian native audiovisual language and dubbed language (Zanotti, this volume).

Among written media, the press has often been one of the most productive areas in the field of lexical innovation as shown, for example, especially by newly coined suffixed adjectives and abstract nouns observed in a corpus of newspaper articles written by Spanish and Latin-American writers and intellectuals and double-checked in two different reference corpora, a synchronic and a diachronic one. This type of lexical creativity seems to characterise the “variante culta” or “registro elevado” of Spanish, but often, due to their “reciente creación” the neologisms analysed are recorded neither in “diccionarios normativos” nor in “diccionarios de uso” and they are only partially present in dictionaries of neologisms (Martí Solano, this volume).

One of the areas in which norms and use/usage have traditionally shown conflicts between abstract recommendations and actual use is pronunciation. Interestingly, in the case of English pronunciation, the area most subject to geographical, dialectal, local, social, in-group etc. variation, some kind of norm is still looked for. According to, for example, opinions expressed on the Internet, having a ‘proper’ accent is still regarded as highly recommendable (Sturiale and Carpenzano, this volume), though it is not supposed to coincide with the standard Received Pronunciation (RP), “a model for correct pronunciation particularly for educated formal speech” (Wells 1990: XII). As a matter of fact “recent estimates suggest only 2% of the UK population speak it” (British Library).8 This attitude towards norms in the field of pronunciation, significantly shown by youtubers, can be compared with the fact that ← 20 | 21 → native speakers’ mispronunciation is more common than expected and has had serious effects in time, as recently commented on in the press. “Error is the engine of language change, and today’s mistake could be tomorrow’s vigorously defended norm” maintains David Shariatmadari (2014) reporting on “8 pronunciation errors that made the English language what it is today”; they range from malapropisms to scientific phenomena, such as affrication and velarisation, to spelling pronunciation.

5. Concluding remarks

One of the issues addressed in the initial project, mentioned in §1, concerned the role of corpora as the central locus where use/usage can be best observed and that of dictionaries as the central locus traditionally representing norms. The directionality of the relation between norm and use/usage was also questioned.

The contributions to this volume offer a variety of ‘observations’ concerning lexis in different dictionaries (monolingual, bilingual, printed, online, normative, descriptive, academic etc.), and in the media (the press, audiovisuals, Internet): some confirm the typical role of dictionaries and the typical role of corpora, others suggest that new forms of dictionaries, simply recording use/usage, are upsetting their traditional role, while corpus data also shows the implementation of norms rather than conflicting instances of use/usage. Whether language use/usage represents, and gives rise to, norms in Coseriu’s (and others’) opinion in a convergent way, or whether it must (should?) conform to institutions’ and dictionary-established norms, in a dichotomous, yet open to novelty, way, often remains a matter of culture-specific situations involving some of the languages studied in this volume. In certain traditions, for example in the British English lexicographical world, norm and use/usage cross-fertilise each other. Some overlapping has been observed, especially in the media and, in the English sense of usage, often norm and normal usage coincide. ← 21 | 22 →

Independently of the different definitions of the concepts of norm and of use/usage in different dictionaries and in different media, they both play an interwoven role, whatever the directionality of the stream: without (lexical) norms, i.e. normal usage, there would not be their exploitation (Hanks 2013). Neither norm nor use/usage would make sense without the other.


Baker, Mona 2009. Norms. In Baker, Mona / Gabriela Saldanha (eds) Routledge Encyclopedia of Translation Studies. London / New York: Routledge, 189–193.

Burchfield, Robert W. (ed.) 1996. The New Fowler’s Modern English Usage. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2015 (June)
Lexis Language use Media European languages Lexicography Dictionaries
Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2014. 430 pp., num. tables and ill.

Biographical notes

Alessandra Molino (Volume editor) Serenella Zanotti (Volume editor)

Alessandra Molino is Lecturer in English Language and Translation at the University of Turin, Italy. Her research interests include academic discourse, English as a medium of instruction and sustainability discourse. Serenella Zanotti is Lecturer in English Language and Translation at Roma Tre University, Italy. Her research focuses on translation studies, cross-cultural pragmatics, youth language, conversational narrative, and literary bilingualism.


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