use-icon

HOW TO USE THE DICTIONARY

Learn what the dictionary tells you about words.

Get Started Now!

Some compound words (like bus rapid transit, dog whistle, or identity theft) don’t appear on the drop-down list when you enter them into the search window. If a compound term doesn’t appear in the drop-down list, try entering the term into the search window and then hit the search button (instead of the “enter” key). Alternatively, begin searches for compound terms with a quotation mark.

use-icon

THE USAGE PANEL

The Usage Panel is a group of nearly 200 prominent scholars, creative writers, journalists, diplomats, and others in occupations requiring mastery of language. The Panelists are surveyed annually to gauge the acceptability of particular usages and grammatical constructions.

The Panelists

puzzle-icon

NEED HELP SOLVING A CROSSWORD PUZZLE?

Go to our Crossword Puzzle Solver and type in the letters that you know, and the Solver will produce a list of possible solutions.

open-icon

INTERESTED IN DICTIONARIES?

Check out the Dictionary Society of North America at http://www.dictionarysociety.com

open-icon

AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY APP

The new American Heritage Dictionary app is now available for iOS and Android.

scroll-icon

INDO-EUROPEAN & SEMITIC ROOTS APPENDICES

Thousands of entries in the dictionary include etymologies that trace their origins back to reconstructed proto-languages. You can obtain more information about these forms in our online appendices:

Indo-European Roots

Semitic Roots

The Indo-European appendix covers nearly half of the Indo-European roots that have left their mark on English words. A more complete treatment of Indo-European roots and the English words derived from them is available in our Dictionary of Indo-European Roots.

open-icon

OPEN DICTIONARY PROJECT

Share your ideas for new words and new meanings of old words!

Start Sharing Now!

100-words-icon

See word lists from the best-selling 100 Words Series!

Find out more!

pro·tag·o·nist (prō-tăgə-nĭst)
Share:
n.
1. The main character in a work of fiction, as a play, film, or novel.
2. In ancient Greek drama, the first actor to engage in dialogue with the chorus, in later dramas playing the main character and some minor characters as well.
3.
a. A leading or principal figure.
b. The leader of a cause; a champion.
4. Usage Problem A proponent; an advocate.

[Greek prōtagōnistēs : prōto-, proto- + agōnistēs, actor, combatant (from agōnizesthai, to contend, from agōn, contest, from agein, to drive, lead; see ag- in the Appendix of Indo-European roots).]

Usage Note: The protagonist of a Greek drama was its leading actor; therefore, there could be only one in a play. Ancient Greek also had words for the second and third actor. These were borrowed into English as deuteragonist and tritagonist, respectively, but the two terms are generally used only in technical discussions of drama. As early as 1671 John Dryden used protagonists to mean simply "important actors" or "principal characters": " 'Tis charg'd upon me that I make debauch'd persons ... my protagonists, or the chief persons of the drama." Some writers may still prefer to confine protagonist to its original singular sense, but it is useless now to insist that the looser use is wrong, since it is so well established and since so many literary works have no single main character. The Usage Panel accepts the looser use. In our 2004 survey, 86 percent of the Panel approved of the sentence Joyce's Ulysses has two protagonists: Leopold Bloom and Stephen Daedalus. Similarly, 84 percent accepted The novel, written from multiple points of view, has several protagonists. · Some people use protagonist to refer to a proponent, a usage that became common only in the 20th century and may have been influenced by a misunderstanding that the first syllable of the word is the prefix pro-, "favoring." Many readers will therefore find erroneous a sentence like He was an early protagonist of nuclear power. Certainly, most of the Usage Panel does. In 2004, 83 percent rejected this same sentence. Fortunately, words like advocate and proponent are standard in these contexts.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fifth Edition copyright ©2017 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

This website is best viewed in Chrome, Firefox, Microsoft Edge, or Safari. Some characters in pronunciations and etymologies cannot be displayed properly in Internet Explorer.