You might look at the first line of Donald Trump’s lawyers’ response to the House of Representatives’ impeachment articles, see that it has the world’s dumbest typo — it’s addressed to “the Members of the Unites States Senate” — and think: Wow. This can’t get any stupider.

If so, you clearly haven’t learned anything from the last four years.

In the coming days of Trump’s impeachment trial, you’re going to hear a lot about definitions — particularly of the word incite — from both sides. In the 4½ pages of the impeachment articles against Trump, variations on the word incite appear three times. For some, Trump’s conviction or acquittal hinges on that word’s definition. You know how all of the world’s worst graduation speeches begin with “The dictionary defines [graduation/commencement/leadership/etc.] as … “? Currently taking bets that at least one trial speaker will start with an identical invocation of incite.

» READ MORE: Twitter bans Trump, citing risk of violent incitement

If we look to dictionary definitions, we find relative consistency. The word dates to the late 15th century and means “to move to action: stir up: spur on: urge on” (Merriam-Webster’s 11th Collegiate); “to urge or spur on; to stir up, animate, instigate, stimulate” (Oxford English Dictionary); “to provoke to action; stir up” (American Heritage). All of these definitions sound a lot like what Trump did on Jan. 6.

But in most word analysis, while the dictionary is a great place to start, it’s a terrible place to stop. Impeachment is a legal proceeding, so we have to consider legal definitions … and there are a lot of them. Each time incite comes up in a law case, its usage creates a legal precedent and definition that someone can later rely on. These definitions number in the thousands, each with varying shades of specificity. Lawyers even have their own legal dictionaries. In one of them, Bouvier Law Dictionary, the definition of incitement goes on for nearly 900 words, and includes references to the Ku Klux Klan, proletarian dictatorship, and Hustler magazine.

It gets complicated.

Trump’s attorneys will likely argue that context matters — and they’re right. Connotations are just as important as denotations to gain a full understanding of a word’s meaning. Here, the descriptive nature of our language presents dangers. Every word stands on its dictionary definition, but — as we’ve seen with terms like hoax, fake news, collusion — use a term differently enough times and even its official definition can begin to morph.

Most mainstream English dictionaries nowadays — including all of the ones cited above — are descriptive, not prescriptive. That means they describe how language is used; they don’t prescribe a singular, immutable set of definitions. Just because you don’t like a word — say, irregardless — doesn’t mean it’s not a word.

» READ MORE: Call the violence Trump created ‘sedition’: After his lies inspire mob to attack Capitol, he must step down | Trudy Rubin

That’s not to say that, according to a descriptive dictionary, your definition can’t be wrong. Rather, for every entry, the dictionary’s editors calculate when a word or its usage has become common enough to warrant a new or revised entry. Just because you made up a word you like doesn’t mean it gets included in the dictionary.

Because Trump’s actions will be so difficult to defend, watch as his attorneys will try to bend the definition of incite right before your eyes.

This descriptive conundrum, and the difficulties it presents when you’re trying to impeach a seditionist who used to live in the White House, is the price we pay for using a language that’s constantly changing. English works well, but we have to be willing to give it a tune-up without bad actors attempting to rewire the whole car.

Because even as the dictionary changes, it provides essential guideposts. We have to trust that none of those guideposts will ever countenance a typo as embarrassing as Unites States.

The Angry Grammarian, otherwise known as Jeffrey Barg, looks at how language, grammar, and punctuation shape our world, and appears biweekly. Send comments, questions, and Noah Webster acolytes to jeff@theangrygrammarian.com.

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