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Reference Books

When you are studying or working with English, there will be some books that you just want to use for reference purposes - you may not necessarily want to buy them. All of the recommended books below should be available in most good libraries. Having said this, they are not generally too expensive to buy; so if you are very keen to improve your English, you may find it worthwhile investing in a copy!


One of the most useful books to look at from time to time is a thesaurus. 

A thesaurus differs from a dictionary because it groups entries according to area of meaning, rather than in alphabetical order. A thesaurus gives you a number of different choices of words and phrases for each entry. There will be some small differences in use between all of the possible choices. However, by looking at the entries and using a suitable word or phrase, you will be able to make your English much richer. A thesaurus is especially useful if you want to:

  • Avoid repeating 'boring' words such as good, bad, interesting, problem, etc.
  • Avoid using 'clichés' - commonly used words and phrases whose impact has become devalued
  • Look at the many different words that can be used to express a particular word or concept
    Find a work you can't remember, by looking up a word with a similar meaning.

Well-known thesaurus books

The most famous thesaurus is Roget's thesaurus, now in its 150th edition.

It was first published in 1852 and is said to have sold over 32 million copies. It is ideal when you want to try and be creative with the language and go beyond the sort of language that you usually use. It can be used when you are writing poetry or prose, but is also useful when you are writing essays.

When you are using a thesaurus, you will need to be aware of the following points:

  • Entries in the thesaurus are not necessarily interchangeable; there are often subtle differences between all the entries.
  • Once you have chosen to use a word, check it again in an English-English dictionary to make extra sure it is the word you need.
  • Some words (such as technical words or precise vocabulary) do not need to be changed or 'enriched' in any way.
  • Some types of communication favour use of the same word, to indicate a precise meaning, rather than different words each time. Find out from your own academic department what is preferable and/or acceptable.

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Dictionary of Idioms

Another useful book is a dictionary of idioms.

Idioms can be difficult to understand because the meaning may not be clear even if you understand all the words in the phrase or sentence. This is where a dictionary of idioms will be helpful. This kind of dictionary will help you to make sense of the many colourful, often poetic expressions used in English.

It is very important to have some understanding of idioms and expressions when you are studying English because:

  • Lecturers often use idioms and colloquial expressions in lectures;
  • Fellow students will also use idioms and expressions in seminars;
  • Idioms are closely connected to the culture of a country, and you may wish to understand that culture more closely;
  • Used carefully and appropriately, people can be impressed with your English if you use the occasional colloquial expression in the right place!

Well-known dictionary of idioms books

The most well-known dictionary of idioms is the Oxford Dictionary of Idioms (2005).

This book contains entries for over 5000 idioms. 350 new entries and over 500 new quotations are also included. A particularly interesting feature of this book is that it gives useful information in boxes about the history and origin of the idioms.

There are also some dangers to using idioms and expressions when you are writing and speaking in English:

  • Idioms are rarely used in academic writing.
  • Idioms (and especially, slang and vulgar expressions) can sound strange when used by a non-native speaker.
  • It can sound clumsy or over-pedantic to use a lot of idioms one after the other.
  • The register of idoms can vary; some are not considered to be polite or well educated.

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    Dictionary of phrasal verbs

    Another book that it can be useful to look at from time to time is a dictionary of phrasal verbs.

    Phrasal verbs are verbs with two or three parts (.e.g. to get on with, to put up with). Phrasal verbs (more correctly known as multi-word verbs) can be difficult to understand because there are a large number of them (over 500) and each may have several meanings.

    It is very useful to have a good understanding of phrasal verbs because:

    • They are often used in speech, including academic speech such as seminars and lectures
    • They are widely used in certain types of writing (e.g. newspapers, on the Internet, etc).
    • Using phrasal verbs effectively is a good way of demonstrating your fluency in the language.


    Well-known dictionary of phrasal verbs books

    Two well known dictionaries of phrasal verbs are the Collins Cobuild Phrasal Verbs Dictionary and the Oxford Phrasal Verbs Dictionary for Learners of English.

    Both are useful and reputable and both provide examples of how the phrasal verbs are used.


    If you are going to use phrasal verbs, remember:

    • They tend to be used more often in speech than in writing.
    • They are very rarely used in academic writing;
    • They can be incorporated into presentations, seminar discussions and social English.


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