The real value of a dictionary is not just defining words, but also showing how the words are used. This is accomplished by the use of example sentences (also known as illustrative quotations, illustrative examples, or illustrative sentences) that are extracted from published magazines, newspapers, books, and websites. The illustrative quotation goes beyond the definition by providing this nuanced information:
Collocation: words that are typically used with the target word
Connotation: additional implied meanings of the target word
Designative meaning: a definition that is specific to a field of study or specific purpose
Grammatical structure: demonstrates how the word works in a specific context
Variety of Usage: the degree of formality and general context of the target word
Period of Usage: the period of time in which the word is used (and when the word fell out of use)
The most comprehensive dictionary of the English language is the Second Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (1989), containing 291,500 entries that are augmented by 2.4 million illustrative quotations (selected from more than 5 million submitted quotations). The OED is very thorough: if a word has more than one meaning, each meaning is represented by its own set of illustrative quotations. Not surprisingly, the most frequently quoted author is William Shakespeare (about 33,500 quotations). The most quoted single work is Shakespeare’s The Tragedy of Hamlet, Prince of Denmark (about 1,600 quotations). And the most frequently quoted book? That would be the Bible with more than 25,000 quotations.
Ponder for a moment that 2.4 million illustrative quotations add up to a lot of words — more than 48 million words. It would be a real shame to let all these clever sentences languish in some lexicographic limbo. Enter Jez Burrows, a San Francisco designer and illustrator, who created “Dictionary Stories,” a blog that features melodramatic short stories made up entirely out of illustrative sentences from various dictionaries — sort of like a Mad Libs on steroids. His epiphany occurred one day while looking up the word “study.” Most illustrative sentences are quite plain and functional; but this one really jumped out — “He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery.” “It was so melodramatic and kind of ridiculous and just made me laugh,” Burrows recalls, “and it just seemed like a piece of fiction.” To write a short story, Burrows finds one evocative illustrative sentence that can serve as the foundation for a short story; he explains “I’ll generally just pick words out of the air. It’s just a case of trolling through and saving sentences that might have the capacity to turn into a narrative. Gradually over time, the stories just sort of build up.” Here is one of his stories made up of illustrative sentences from the New Oxford American Dictionary:
He perched on the edge of the bed, a study in confusion and misery, a study of a man devoured by awareness of his own mediocrity. The place was dreadfully untidy. Tattered notebooks filled with illegible hieroglyphics, the evolution of animal life, the mysteries of analytical psychology, victorian architecture… The street lamps shed a faint light into the room. It was beginning to rain.
Ruth listened to the rhythm of his breathing. She sat very still, her eyes closed. She heard the click of the door. He was thrown backward by the force of the explosion.
Her hunting days were done.
For further reading: http://public.oed.com/history-of-the-oed/dictionary-facts/