I’ve been reviewing glossary entries this week, and I’ve re-encountered an old nemesis: “refers to,” downfall of Dictionary players everywhere. If you don’t have time to read any farther, here’s one simple rule on how to use “refers to”: don’t. “Means” works fine, but “is” is probably better. And, often, you don’t need either one.

For reasons that are unclear to me, many people are under the impression that dictionary-style definitions typically begin “[Word] refers to . . . .” While I’m not one to critique other players’ parlor game strategies, it does occasionally fall to me to review and revise the work of novice glossarists. In these cases, it’s my responsibility to point out that dictionary-style definitions do not, in fact, take this form.

“But how would I know that?” you may protest; “I’m not a trained lexicographer!” And, indeed, neither am I. I am, however, a person who owns a dictionary. And, in this dictionary, I find that definitions tend to take this form (punctuation and formatting varies; it’s the content that I’m interested in here):

word: a thing that is said

The definition begins with a superordinate term (a word is a thing), and then restricts that term to pick out only the particular concept that is required (not just any thing, but a thing that is said). The superordinate is the same part of speech as the word being defined, and the definition as a whole could be substituted for the original term in a sentence (the result might be clunky, but it would be grammatical).

The moral for writers: if you’re trying to match a particular form, study examples of the form. The moral for editors: if you don’t know how it’s supposed to be done (or, perhaps, even if you think you do), look it up. And the moral for Dictionary players: the definition that begins “[Word] refers to . . . .” is fake.