Using Merriam-Webster Online

Main Entries

A boldface letter or a combination of such letters, including punctuation marks and diacritics where needed, that is set flush with the left-hand margin of each column of type is a main entry or entry word. The main entry may consist of letters set solid, of letters joined by a hyphen or a slash, or of letters separated by one or more spaces:

1alone . . . adjective
au·to-da-fé. . . noun
and/or . . . conjunction
automatic pilot noun

The material in lightface type that follows each main entry on the same line and on succeeding indented lines explains and justifies its inclusion in the dictionary.

Variation in the styling of compound words in English is frequent and widespread. It is often completely acceptable to choose freely among open, hyphenated, and closed alternatives (as life style, life-style, or lifestyle). However, to show all the stylings that are found for English compounds would require space that can be better used for other information. So this dictionary limits itself to a single styling for a compound:

boom box

When a compound is widely used and one styling predominates, that styling is shown. When a compound is uncommon or when the evidence indicates that two or three stylings are approximately equal in frequency, the styling shown is based on the analogy of similar compounds.

Abbreviations and Symbols

Abbreviations and symbols for chemical elements are included as main entries in the vocabulary:

ca abbreviation circa
Ca symbol calcium

Abbreviations have been normalized to one form. In practice, however, there is considerable variation in the use of periods and in capitalization (as mph, m.p.h., Mph, and MPH), and stylings other than those given in this dictionary are often acceptable.

Order of Main Entries

The main entries follow one another in alphabetical order letter by letter without regard to intervening spaces or hyphens: battle royal follows battlement and earth-shattering follows earthshaking. Those containing an Arabic numeral are alphabetized as if the numeral were spelled out: 3-D comes between three-color and three-decker. Those that often begin with the abbreviation St. in common usage have the abbreviation spelled out: Saint Anthony's fire.

Full words come before parts of words made up of the same letters. Solid compounds come first and are followed by hyphenated compounds and then open compounds. Lowercase entries come before entries that begin with a capital letter:

3semi . . . noun
semi- . . . prefix
take·out . . . noun
take-out . . . adjective
tim·o·thy . . . noun
Tim·o·thy . . . noun


When one main entry has exactly the same written form as another, the two are distinguished by superscript numerals preceding each word:

  • 1melt . . . verb
  • 1pine . . . noun
  • 2melt . . . noun
  • 2pine . . . verb intransitive

Sometimes such homographs are related: the two entries melt are derived from the same root. Sometimes there is no relationship: the two entries pine are unrelated beyond the accident of spelling. The order of homographs is usually historical: the one first used in English is entered first. A homograph derived from an earlier homograph by functional shift, however, follows its parent immediately, with the result that occasionally one homograph appears ahead of another that is older in usage. For example, of the three entries kennel the second (a verb) is derived from the first (a noun). Even though the unrelated third entry kennel was used in English many years before the second, it follows the two related entries.

Abbreviations and symbols that are homographs of other entries are listed last:

1bus . . . noun
2bus verb
3bus abbreviation

End-of-Line Division

The centered dots within entry words indicate division points at which a hyphen may be put at the end of a line of print or writing. Thus the noun pos·si·bil·i·ty may be ended on one line with:


and continued on the next with:


Centered dots are not shown after a single initial letter or before a single terminal letter because printers seldom cut off a single letter:

aswirl . . . adjective
mouthy . . . adjective
idea . . . noun

Nor are they shown at second and succeeding homographs unless these differ among themselves:

  • 1re·form . . . verb
  • 1min·ute . . . noun
  • 2reform . . . noun
  • 2minute . . . verb transitive
  • 3reform . . . adjective
  • 3mi·nute . . . adjective

There are acceptable alternative end-of-line divisions just as there are acceptable variant spellings and pronunciations. It is, for example, all but impossible to produce a convincing argument that either of the divisions aus·ter·i·ty, au·ster·i·ty is better than the other. But space cannot be taken for entries like aus–ter–ity or au·ster·i·ty, and au·s·ter·i·ty would likely be confusing to many. No more than one division is, therefore, shown for an entry in this dictionary.

Many words have two or more common pronunciation variants, and the same end-of-line division is not always appropriate for each of them. The division fla·gel·lar, for example, best fits the variant \flə-ˈje-lər\ whereas the division flag·el·lar best fits the variant \ˈfla-jə-lər\. In instances like this, the division falling farther to the left is used, regardless of the order of the pronunciations:

fla·gel·lar \flə-ˈje-lər, ˈfla-jə-lər\


When a main entry is followed by the word or and another spelling, the two spellings occur with equal or nearly equal frequency and can be considered equal variants. Both are standard, and either one may be used according to personal inclination:

ocher or ochre

If two variants joined by or are out of alphabetical order, they remain equal variants. The one printed first is, however, slightly more common than the second:

pol·ly·wog or pol·li·wog

When another spelling is joined to the main entry by the word also, the spelling after also occurs appreciably less often and thus is considered a secondary variant:

can·cel·la·tion also can·cel·ation

Secondary variants belong to standard usage and may be used according to personal inclination. If there are two secondary variants, the second is joined to the first by or. Once the word also is used to signal a secondary variant, all following variants are joined by or:

1Shake·spear·ean or Shake·spear·ian also Shak·sper·ean or Shak·sper·ian

The use of or to indicate equal variants and also to indicate secondary variants applies not only to main entries, but to all boldface entry words, including inflected forms and run-on entries.

Variants having a usage label appear only at their own alphabetical places:

metre . . . chiefly British variant of METER
agin . . . dialect variant of AGAINST


The defined senses of a main entry may be followed by one or more derivatives or by a homograph with a different functional label. These are run-on entries. Each is introduced by a lightface dash and each has a functional label. They are not defined, however, since their meanings are readily derivable from the meaning of the root word:

slay . . . verbslay·er
spir·it·ed . . . adjectivespir·it·ed·ly adverbspir·it·ed·ness noun
stac·ca·to . . . adjectivestaccato noun

The defined senses of a main entry may be followed by one or more phrases containing the entry word or an inflected form of it. These are also run-on entries. Each is introduced by a lightface dash but there is no functional label. They are, however, defined since their meanings are more than the sum of the meanings of their elements:

1hole . . . noun . . . —in the hole 1 : . . .
1live . . . verb . . .—live it up: . . .

Defined phrases of this sort are run on at the entry constituting the first major element in the phrase. The first major element is ordinarily a verb or a noun, but when these are absent another part of speech may serve instead:

1but . . . conjunction . . .—but what : . . .

When there are variants, however, the run-on appears at the entry constituting the first major invariable element in the phrase:

1clock . . . noun . . . —kill the clock or run out the clock : . . .
1hand . . . noun . . .—on all hands or on every hand : . . .

A run-on entry is an independent entry with respect to function and status. Labels at the main entry do not apply unless they are repeated.