Most writers rely on spelling checkers. But spelling checkers don’t always tell you when you’ve used the right word in the right form. (For example, they do not distinguish between homophones, or words that sound alike but have different meanings and sometimes different spellings, like there and their.) That’s one reason why it’s important to consult a dictionary as you write.

Spelling Variants

MLA publications generally follow the spelling preferences listed in Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, available online, and Merriam Webster’s Unabridged, available by subscription. This means that we follow the first-listed spelling when there are variants—that is, when a word can be spelled more than one way. For example, we use the word acknowledgment, not acknowledgement. You don’t need to follow the same procedures a publisher like the MLA does, but you will want to spell a given word consistently throughout your paper and know when different spellings signal different meanings. Although it might seem confusing that there isn’t always a right and a wrong spelling choice, making an informed decision is simple: familiarize yourself with the kinds of words you should routinely look up, and know where to turn for guidance.

Below, we provide examples for using the online Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in your writing.

Two Words or One?

Spelling checkers won’t help you when it comes to compound words, or words formed by more than one word or part of a word—an especially thorny issue for writers. Compound words might be “open” (that is, treated as more than one word: out loud), “closed” (treated as one word: outpost), or hyphenated (out-box). Dictionaries usually list the most commonly used compound words.

Sometimes the same word will have a different meaning depending on whether it is one word or two. For example, time line means “a table listing important events for successive years within a particular historical period” and timeline (one word) means “a schedule of events and procedures.” So your history book might include a “time line” of events that took place during World War II, but when you visit a college admissions office, you might be given a “timeline” of activities for the day. Similarly, a fire wall is a wall designed to stop a fire from spreading, and a firewall is what keeps your computer from getting hacked.

Moreover, sometimes the part of speech can differ depending on whether a word is closed up or not: under way is an adverb (“The test is now under way”), but underway is an adjective (“She had to interrupt the underway test”).

Language, of course, is always changing. Until recently, Merriam-Webster’s showed “user name” (two words), which now appears as a single word: “username.” Frustrated yet? Don’t be. Although publishers like the MLA have to decide whether they too will make such changes, you’ll just need to follow the dictionary.

There are three main ways to find information about compound words in Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate:

    1. Look up the main word and see if the term or phrase is presented as a subentry.

      Someone who makes policy is a policy maker.

      Why? There is no entry for policymaker in the dictionary, and the entry for policy does not include policymaker as a subentry.

      A man who cares for horses at a stable is a stableman.

      Why? You’ll find it as a subentry under stable.

    1. Look up the entire term or phrase, since it may be an entry unto itself.

      Children hold on to their stuffed animals.

      Why? Under the entry for hold on, you’ll find the example hold on to.

      You eat almonds to stave off hunger.

      Why? You look up stave, finding that it means “drive or thrust away.” Seeing no reference to stave off, you could mistakenly conclude that stave is the right choice. But, knowing you’ve seen stave used with off, you think to look up stave off as an entry—and find that it’s the correct term.

  1. Look up each word separately if the previous two methods yield no results.


The dictionary is one place you can look to see if a word should be capitalized. For example, did you know that Band-Aid and Kleenex are trademarks and thus capitalized? Or that Old World as a noun meaning “the European Continent” is capitalized? Every copyeditor worth his or her salt does, but most spelling checkers are blissfully ignorant of such conventions and legal niceties.

Names of Persons

If an author’s name varies in the works you consult, the MLA Handbook advises you to use the variant preferred by the dictionary of your choice. This simple guideline is sufficient for student writers.

That said, an author’s name can differ for various reasons, and scholars and publishers have a host of considerations when deciding on the spelling of a name. For example, names from languages that do not use the Latin alphabet can be romanized according to different systems. So you might see Dostoyevsky or Dostoevsky (the MLA has chosen one system for transliterating Russian). Or there might be different acceptable ways to spell a name—for example, Virgil or Vergil. (Astute readers may have noticed that the MLA now recommends “Virgil” as the most common spelling, following Merriam-Webster’s, the popular Loeb series, and the Oxford Classical Dictionary—though the spelling “Vergil” still has many adherents among scholars.) Sometimes the preferred spelling of an author’s name might be all but lost to history. For example, the writer W. E. B. Du Bois is said to have signed his name both “Du Bois” and “DuBois.” Many editions of his works, as well as the Encyclopaedia Brittanica, Library of Congress, Hutchins Center at Harvard University, and editions of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate before the current eleventh edition, show “Du Bois” as the preferred variant.

There is often room for doubt with names—so, when you’re uncertain, follow the dictionary.


The dictionary can also offer useful guidance on which preposition to use with a word—for example, the different meanings of “consist of” and “consist in” and the fact that it is idiomatic to write “prejudiced against” (not “toward”) and “equivalent to” (not “with”).

This guidance sometimes appears in the definition, but sometimes it can only be inferred from the usage examples. For instance, are currants embedded “in” a scone or “within” it? The dictionary shows examples of “in,” a more concise word and a foolproof choice for writers.

Foreign Terms

To italicize, or not to italicize? MLA style recommends that writers using terms from a language other than English in their prose italicize them:

In Hamlet, “The Mousetrap” is a mise en abyme, or play within a play.

Since a language of origin (“French”) appears beside the definition for mise en abyme, treat it as a foreign term and italicize it.

In contrast, a part of speech appearing beside the definition, as for mise-en-scène,  indicates that the term has been “naturalized” into English. Thus no italics are needed:

The mise-en-scène of Oz in Victor Fleming’s 1939 film is established primarily by the shift from black-and-white to color film.

Here are some other words from languages other than English that have been naturalized into English:

  • hacienda
  • pro bono
  • raison d’être
  • zeitgeist

These words are used often enough to have become familiar to English readers and speakers and don’t need to be italicized.

Comparative Form of Adjectives

You probably would never write, “My dog is specialer to me than my pet goldfish,” but sometimes choosing the right comparative form of an adjective isn’t so cut-and-dried (or is it “cut-and-dry”?). Various usage guides, including The Chicago Manual of Style, offer advice based on syllables (one: usually add -er; two: coin toss; three: precede with “more”), but the variations are plentiful. The dictionary will tell you when forming the comparative entails altered spelling (e.g., “red” becomes “redder”), when the form is nonstandard (e.g., “bad” becomes “worse”), or when more than one choice is possible. So if you’re wondering which comparative form of the adjective to use, try the dictionary.


We live in an age of ubiquitous e-. Merriam-Webster’s lists e- (which stands for “electronic”) as a “combining form.” This means e- functions not on its own but only as part of another word. The dictionary notes, moreover, that use of e- as a combining form derives from the word “e-mail.” Some other e- words are listed, including “e-book” and “e-commerce.” Admittedly, “electronic” sounds a bit antiquated, yet e- conveys the same sense. If you coin e- compounds, keep them to a minimum—and use the hyphen.

Photo of Angela Gibson

Angela Gibson

Angela Gibson is the director of scholarly communication at the MLA. She has extensive editorial experience and holds a PhD in Middle English from the University of Rochester. Before coming to the MLA, she taught college courses in writing and literature.