When you are working or studying in English, a good English-English dictionary is essential. An English-English dictionary will help you, amongst other things, to:
Check your writing for accuracy
Check the meanings of key words or phrases as you read or listen
Check the pronunciation of words before you give a presentation
There are many different dictionaries to choose from, in many different sizes, and at many different prices. Dictionaries have changed considerably over the years. Nowadays, most well known dictionaries also include a CD-ROM with additional information about words and how they are used. Advanced learners' dictionaries also have other useful reference materials such as lists of essay phrases, etc.
With so much information contained in dictionaries, it is easy to see that choosing the right one for you can be a daunting task. Academics, too, have entered into debate about which dictionaries are the best, and most suitable. The key, though, in choosing a dictionary is to decide which dictionary works for you.
Some well known dictionaries
- Cambridge International Dictionary of English;
- Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner's English Dictionary;
- Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English;
- Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary.
All these dictionaries (and others) are reputable, and are useful for students who are studying at English-medium universities. Of all the four dictionaries, the Collins COBUILD dictionary was perhaps the most original and distinctive when it was first introduced. The Cobuild dictionary ranks uses of words in order according to how often they are used (known as frequency). It uses examples of real spoken and written English drawn from the 'Bank of English'. Other dictionaries also give helpful examples of language use, taken from collections of both written and spoken language (corpora).
Before choosing and purchasing a dictionary, try to survey a selection of dictionaries in the library or in your self-access centre first.
Choose and write down five or six words (or phrases) as follows:
a) Two that relate to your subject area;
b) Two that relate to phrases that you would like to be able to use;
c) Two that relate to words that you have found in your reading recently.
When you have made your list, look up the words and phrases on your list. As you do so, think about the points below.
1. The quality of the examples provided
- Do the examples place the word or phrase in surrounding language (this is known as context)? Most good dictionaries will do this - you can tell this quite easily by looking at any entry in the dictionary. Examples are usually given in italics.
- Do you feel that you can understand the level of language used in the examples?
- Do the examples actually make it easier, or perhaps, harder to arrive at the correct meaning of the word?
2. The importance of speech
- Does the dictionary give examples of language that you could use in speech, as well as in writing? (earlier dictionaries tended to focus mainly on writing, but newer ones focus on both speech and writing).
- Does the dictionary give more than one example of the word, to show shades of meaning?
- Does the dictionary specify whether the example is taken from speech or writing? If not, is it obvious?
- Is there information about pronouncing the word? Do you like the layout of this information?
3. Varieties of English
- Does the dictionary give examples of British and non-British varieties of English? Symbols such as 'Am', indicating American English, will be used, and some dictionaries give the equivalent of a word in another country if there is one.
- As English is an international language, it is better if the dictionary you use covers different varieties of English.
4. The age factor
- Does the dictionary give an idea of the English used by young adults as well as by older people. You can usually tell if this is the case by looking up one or two slang or colloquial words to see if they are covered. A good dictionary should also include different levels of formality (formal, neutral and informal), and should include all of them.
5. Word grammar
- Is there a user-friendly list of grammatical abbreviations at the beginning of the dictionary?
- Are the grammatical abbreviations easy to follow? Sometimes, grammatical abbreviations such as [i] or [t], to indicate intransitive or transitive verbs, can be confusing. And sometimes the actual layout of the page does not always help us to see how the grammar of words works.
6. Word frequency
- Does the dictionary give information about the frequency and distribution of words and phrases? In its earlier editions, the COBUILD dictionary was particularly strong in this area, though it did sometimes mean that entries were not always grouped according to parts of speech (e.g. all verbs together, all nouns, etc).
7. Visual layout
Many dictionaries now use colour coding for ease of use. In many respects, this is a very personal matter. What one person likes, another person will not like. The key again is clarity - do the colours help you to find what you are looking for more quickly?
You may not be able to try out the CD-ROM before you buy the dictionary, but if you do, some things to consider are:
- Does the dictionary recognise slight variations in things such as spelling or the use of a small letter rather than a capital letter?
- Is the dictionary window big enough?
9. Can't find the word you are looking for?
- Is this because of the dictionary itself, or because of your own dictionary skills?
- Consider working on your dictionary skills a little more.
- Remember that no dictionary can contain all words, regardless of the size of the dictionary! You may need to obtain a more technical dictionary if the word you are looking for is specialised. These are often available on-line.
- Ensure that you know the correct alphabetical order in English. This may seem an obvious enough point, but it is surprising how much time it can save.
- Remember, when you look up words, that they are not always written as they are pronounced; for instance, many words begin with a silent letter (e.g. knowledge, gnaw, pneumatic, etc).
- When looking up phrases, select a good 'head word'; for example, if you are checking the meaning of 'to beat around the bush', the entry is likely to come under 'beat' or 'bush', but is very unlikely to be included under 'around' or 'the'.
- When using an electronic bilingual dictionary, cross-reference the word you find with a larger, English-English dictionary to check that the example given is correct.
- As above, when using a bilingual dictionary, check both ways - your language to English and English back to your language; you should finish with the same word you started with.
- Try to become more familiar with the content of dictionary entries: abbreviations, phonetic transcriptions, etc.
- Be selective when you use the dictionary; it will be impossible to look up every unfamiliar word when you are reading an academic text, so just check the words that you really need to know.
- Find out how your dictionary indicates the stress on a word, for pronunciation purposes.
- Many dictionaries have CD-ROMs and accompanying materials such as lists of essay phrases - try to use these if you can.
- Don't be a 'slave' to your dictionary - it is there to help you but do not allow it to become dominating.