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My dictionary’s entry for ability contains one of the things I find ridiculous about some dictionary entries. Ability is roughly defined as an acquired or natural talent, competence or skill. OK. I have no problem with that definition.

However, it’s also defined by The New Penguin English Dictionary as “being able; esp physical, mental, or legal power to perform.”

Um, excuse me? Ability means “being able …” (Admit it, you thought I was going to make some joke about the sexual innuendo that some might consider to be inherent in the word perform, didn’t you? If so, you were wrong.) Here’s what I have an issue with: If someone has to look up the definition of the word ability, what are the chances that he or she already knows what able means? I’d say the likelihood is very small indeed.

True, there may be no simpler way of saying it, but why not just say, “well, you know, and if you don’t we probably couldn’t succeed at explaining it to you anyway.”

The way they’ve worded it presents a particular problem for readers who are reading a dictionary sequentially from front to back, but who don’t know what able means. Able comes after ability in the dictionary. Using the word able in the definition of ability disrupts the natural flow for those readers because they have to interrupt their reading to jump ahead and look up able before they can continue their pleasant literary journey through the dictionary after their stop at ability.

It doesn’t say much for the writing skills of the authors of this otherwise fine dictionary, now does it? Maybe that’s why I can’t find it for sale anymore other than through used-book sellers.

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