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I’m confused to find opposite definitions in the same word, ‘peruse’ in Readers English Japanese Dictionary published by a leading foreign language dictionary publisher in Japan. It defines ‘peruse’ as:

vt.

  1. Read carefully and attentively. Examine carefully.

  2. Read cursorily, quickly.

As I thought ‘read carefully’ and ‘read cursorily’ are contradicting definition, I checked OALED. It defines ‘peruse’ singly as:

vt. to read sth. especially in a careful way.

Oxford Online English Dictionary single-mindedly defines ‘peruse’ as:

  1. read (something), typically in a thorough or careful way:
  2. examine carefully or at length:

with a specific note:

Note that peruse means ‘read’, typically with an implication of thoroughness and care. It does not mean ‘read through quickly; glance over’, as in documents will be perused rather than analyzed thoroughly.

Cambridge Online English Dictionary similarly define ‘peruse’ as:

to read through something, especially in order to find the part you are interested in:

However, Merriam-Webster English Dictionary comes with dual meanings of ‘attentive reading’ and ‘cursory reading, or skimming.’

a: to examine or consider with attention and in detail.

b: to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner.

Obviously, both Oxford (including OAELD) and Cambridge English Dictionary give a single meaning of ‘attentive reading,’ and both Merriam-Webster and Readers Dictionary give dual meanings of “attentive and casual reading.”

What is the absolute interpretation of the meaning of ‘peruse’? If it has a single meaning - only attentive reading -, there’s no problem. But if it has dual meanings as seen in Merriam-Webster and Readers Dictionary, how can I find which way the word is used in mutually conflicting meanings of ‘deep-reading’ and ‘quick-reading’ in the context?

In other word, how can I tell whether the sender wants me to make a thorough and meticulous study of his writing, or to have just a quick run-through when he sends it to me with a note, “for your perusal?”

Addendum:

I checked American English dictionaries at hand, which again come in both a single and dual definition(s).

Oxford American English Dictionary (1980) defines ‘peruse’ singly as to read or examine printed material, especially with great care.

Webster’s New World Basic Dictionary of American English (1998) defines the word separately as; 1. to read through carefully as in peruse report on employment.

2 to read in a casual way as in peruse the Sunday paper.

In net, four English dictionaries provide a single definition purporting ‘attentive reading,’ and three other dictionaries provide dual meanings of ‘attentive’ and ‘cursory’ reading. However, all three Oxford brand dictionaries adopt uniformly a single ‘attentive reading’ interpretation.

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Perusing this question was very interesting... –  J.R. Jun 7 '13 at 0:55

2 Answers 2

up vote 4 down vote accepted

To follow up on FumbleFingers's OED quote, I note that the "to look over or through in a casual or cursory manner" definition is a relatively recent addition to the Merriam-Webster's entry for peruse. That definition first appears (in the Collegiate series) in the Tenth Collegiate Dictionary (1993). The Ninth Collegiate Dictionary (1983) has a substantially shorter entry for peruse:

1: to examine or consider with attention and in detail: STUDY 2: READ

Perhaps the most ambiguous definition of peruse in the Tenth (and Eleventh) Collegiate Dictionary is the revised form of the older definition 2 ("READ"):

2: READ; esp., to read over in an attentive or leisurely manner

To me, "an attentive or leisurely manner" is a bit like "a hard-working or indolent manner"—it covers a lot of ground in two places with very little overlap between them.

Because the word can mean quite different things nowadays, I wouldn't assign a more specific meaning than "read" to any contemporary occurrence of it unless I had contextual clues to help me interpret the speaker's (or writer's) intent.

FOLLOW-UP: Various grammar and usage commentators have addressed the proper usage of peruse. For example, Eric Partridge, Usage and Abusage, Fifth Edition (1957) offers this entry:

peruse is not synonymous with 'to read', for it means to read thoroughly, read carefully, from beginning to end. One peruses a contract, one reads an (ordinary) advertisement—that is, if one does not merely glance at it.

Bryan A. Garner, Modern American Usage (2003) expresses a similar view:

peruse (= to read with great care) is pompous and stilted in business correspondence. That is, the word shouldn't be used merely as a fancy substitute for read. ... Some writers misuse the word as if it meant "to read quickly" or "scan" [examples omitted]. That slipshod extension has become common enough to be listed in some dictionaries. But since it's the opposite of the word's traditional meaning, that usage is best shunned.

Of course, both Partridge and Garner focus on how peruse should be used, not on how people actually use it. For a descriptivist view—and a critique of prescriptivist hostility toward using peruse to mean simply "read"—we can consult Webster's Dictionary of English Usage (1989). Its discussion runs for a page and a half.

Briefly, WDEU argues that peruse arose as "a literary word" that, in poetry, served as "a useful alternative to the monosyllabic read." WDEU traces hostility to the use of peruse to mean simply "read" to Frank Vizetelly, A Desk-Book of Errors in English (1906), which made the following assertion:

peruse should not be used when the simple read is meant. The former implies to read with care and attention and is almost synonymous with scan, which is to examine with critical care and in detail. A person is more apt to read than to scan or peruse the Bible.

Incidentally, scan has long since completed the bipolar metamorphosis that some people now attribute to peruse. As Garner notes, "scan is ambiguous: it may mean either (1) 'to examine carefully, scrutinize' or (2) 'to skim through, look at hurriedly.' In [American English], as it happens, sense 2 now vastly predominates—a tendency bolstered by the ubiquitous electronic scanner, which contribute to the idea of haste."

According to WDEU, "it appears that this notion of the correct use of peruse was Vizetelly's own invention. It was certainly born in disregard of dictionary definitions of the word and in apparent ignorance of the literary traditions on which those dictionary definitions were based."

WDEU then cites 21 examples (ranging in publication date from 1594 to 1968) involving peruse—some with a narrowing adverb such as thoroughly, diligently, or attentively, or (contrariwise) negligently or idly, and others with no adverbial modifiers (such as "I perused a number of public notices attached to the wall," from a 1939 book by Flann O'Brien). Then it makes its central argument:

You may have noticed by now that the plain word read can readily be substituted in any of these examples, even where the idea of "read through or over" is pretty obvious.

...

In conclusion we recommend that you reread the examples and see for yourself in how many Samuel Johnson's simple "read" definition would work perfectly well. There are likely to be only a few in which adding the adverbs used by later dictionary definers will enhance anyone's understanding of the passage.

Under the circumstances, I don't think that the Tenth Collegiate's 1993 expansion of the second definition of peruse four years after WDEU appeared from "READ" to "READ; esp., to read over in an attentive or leisurely manner" represents a disavowal by Merriam-Webster's of the generic sense "read" in favor of something along the lines of "either read in an attentive manner or read in a leisurely manner, but not simply read." Rather, I think it reflects Merriam-Webster's desire to call out the two most common narrower senses that peruse-as-"read" takes, while upholding the continued validity of the root meaning "read."

In any event, Merriam-Webster's republished WDEU as Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage in 1994 (one year after the Tenth Collegiate appeared) with its lengthy discussion of peruse unchanged.

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Well, I'm sure we all know by now that the word has at least two senses - but I don't think netting off careful against cursory to give a third one of just plain reading is a meaningful "happy medium". The whole point of the word is to convey reading without the normal degree of attention - usually with more, sometimes less, but never just normal. –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '13 at 3:37
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As I noted, the Ninth Collegiate's definition 2 from just 30 years ago is the generic "READ"; and though the revised definition elaborates on that sprig in two contrary directions, it doesn't discard it. It seems to me that the two precise (and incompatible) definitions of peruse are like two species of animal that are very different but are hard to distinguish on sight. Under those circumstances, I recommend not venturing beyond the genus identification unless context guides the reader to a more confident recognition of the species. –  Sven Yargs Jun 7 '13 at 3:52
    
I don't think that definition really supports your case. It specifically says attentive or leisurely, not attentive or leisurely or normal. Any other meaning can only apply to those rare cases not included in especially (which I interpret as almost always here). –  FumbleFingers Jun 7 '13 at 3:59
    
I often declare to the librarian 'I will peruse this book from cover-to-cover'. This she finds somewhat amusing. –  user3847 Nov 13 at 12:04

I know it's a big chunk to copy wholesale from OED, but...

Modern dictionaries and usage guides, perh. influenced by the word's earlier history in English, have sometimes claimed that the only ‘correct’ usage is in reference to reading closely or thoroughly (cf. senses 4a, 4b). However, peruse has been a broad synonym for read since the 16th cent., encompassing both careful and cursory reading; Johnson defined and used it as such. The implication of leisureliness, cursoriness, or haste is therefore not a recent development, although it is usually found in less formal contexts and is less frequent in earlier use (see quot. 1589 for an early example). The specific sense of browsing or skimming emerged relatively recently, generally in ironic or humorous inversion of the formal sense of thoroughness. Cf. scan v. for a similar development and range of senses.

I have nothing to add except that I'd advise OP to assume careful reading unless the context strongly suggests cursory reading.


EDIT: Actually, I have got a point to add. It's important to note that peruse never means read normally (except perhaps if the word were being used facetiously, simply as an "erudite" word). It usually means to read with more than the normal degree of attention, and sometimes less, but hardly ever just normal.

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Whose normal? –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 '13 at 7:25
    
"From the moment I picked up your book until I laid it down , I was convulsed with laughter." 'Someday, I intend perusing it.'................... 'Outside of a dog, a book is man's best friend. Inside of a dog, it's too dark to peruse.' –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 7 '13 at 7:38
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And then there's the matter of poop scooping to deal with once the dog is finished digesting the work himself. –  rhetorician Jun 7 '13 at 18:27

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