The Grammarphobia Blog

Reference material

Q: I am a longtime English teacher. Recently, I have seen more and more sentences like this: “Shakespeare again references Macbeth’s having ‘borne all things well.’” Not only students but also young English teachers use “reference” like that. It is driving me crazy. Has this usage become acceptable?

A: I’m sorry to be the bearer of bad tidings, but both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary recognize “reference” as a verb meaning either to supply references to or to refer to. And therein lies the problem, I think.

Interestingly, the usage isn’t all that new, either. The word “reference” was used as a verb in the late 19th century, then apparently fell out of favor, only to be resurrected in the 1970s. The earliest published reference to “reference” as a verb in the Oxford English Dictionary is from 1891.

Never mind! I don’t like the usage either. My problem with it is the ambiguity.

If you “reference” a work, are you making a reference to it, or are you including in it references to other works? If a book is “referenced,” is it referred to or is it referring to others? When Shakespeare “references” Macbeth (the character, I assume), what exactly is he doing? Is he putting a reference into Macbeth’s mouth? Or making another character refer to Macbeth? Pretty fuzzy, no?

On the grounds of ambiguity alone, you can justify avoiding “reference” as a verb and choosing instead “refer to,” “make reference to,” “supply references for,” “include a reference,” or whatever.

Not everything recognized in a dictionary is “acceptable” by all educated people. You still have a choice!

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