Using the Dictionary in APA, Chicago, & Other Academic Writing

Did your parents ever tell you to go look up a word in the dictionary? Mine did (figures I’d end up in a career driven by language and writing). What a lot of people don’t realize is that you can get the answers to many of your questions from the good old dictionary.  Or maybe I should call it the good new dictionary, now that you can access words immediately online. No more excuses for me!

So, here are some very practical uses for the dictionary for  academic writers.

Which Dictionary to Use

First off, you have to know where to look. Most major editorial styles based in U.S. English (e.g., APA, Chicago, MLA, AMA) defer to Merriam-Webster Collegiate or the unabridged version for spelling. The unabridged version charges a subscription fee but the collegiate version is free and has most everything you need as a writer. For British English, the standard is Oxford Dictionary, which is also free online.

Checking for Open and Closed Words

This is a very common question for writers.  For instance, do people develop over a life span or a lifespan? Do student have vacation after the school year or the schoolyear? Do you have a caretaker or a care taker?

The first option is correct in all three of those cases. If you add M-W’s site to your favorites, you can check questionable spellings very quickly as you draft your manuscripts. If you use FireFox as your browser, you can even quickly install the free Merriam-Webster Add-On to make the process even quicker. Now we really have no excuse!  😉

Noun Versus Verb Spellings

So I try not to use many grammatical terms on this site, but I think we can all deal with nouns and verbs.  🙂 Sometimes we make verbs with more than one word, and those extra words add meaning. For instance, go out is not the same as go around.

So what does that mean for us in academic writing? Well, the first tip is to try to avoid verbs that use multiple words, especially when they sound informal. For instance, you can almost always replace “get” verbs with a precise one-word verb. This reduces wordiness and helps you maintain a professional tone.

Second, you can check spellings to make sure you are using them correctly. For instance, if you are measuring high-school completion rates, you might find yourself wondering if you should use drop out, dropout, or drop-out.  The first two spellings are correct, whereas the third is not.

Used as a Noun

In this study, a school dropout was defined as a student who had formally left school and had not received a high-school diploma or other equivalency by age 23.

Used as a Verb

The sample consisted of 500 high-school graduates and 35 high-school dropouts. (The only thing you might want to consider here is the issue of sensitivity, but the term is commonly used in the educational literature)

Used to Modify Another Word

Compared to students in the graduate subsample, students in the dropout subsample scored lower on the national test. (here, “drop-out” is not correct because we used the spelling in Merriam-Webster).

Checking for Hyphenation

Similar to the situations above, you can use the dictionary to quickly check spellings for hyphenation. It’s hard to keep all of the words straight, so you can just shoot over to the online dictionary and look up anything you like.  For instance:


This study has implications for policy and frontline workers.

The most influential people for adolescents are the teachers on the front line.

In neither case is front-line used.

Checking for Capitalization

This is another big one. A quick check in the dictionary can often settle a question about whether a word should be written with a capital or lowercase letter. For instance, per Merriam-Webster (and per APA), you should write chi-square, not Chi-square or Chi-Square. Note that the hyphen is always used, and the term should not be set in italics (I just did that here for example’s sake).

Checking for Preferred Spelling

Yet another useful situation is when you want to know which spelling to use when multiple spellings are possible. In this case, you can use any spelling listed in Merriam-Webster, but it is good practice to use the primary spelling, not the variant. The primary spelling is listed first.

For instance, Merriam-Webster lists toward as the primary entry and towards as the secondary option. This is a minor detail in many cases but again it is good practice, and over time some spellings become outdated (one word). Another example is that you should use aging (primary spelling), not ageing (variant).

Well folks, I hope those examples were helpful. I’ll be sending out a free quick-reference guide of common academic word spellings to my e-mail list in the near future.


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Rocky Citro

Hi, my name is Rocky, and I am a technical academic editor with over a decade experience editing for professors and graduate students in prestigious universities. I have also taught writing at the graduate and undergraduate level and have several years' TEFL teaching experience.

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