How to buy a dictionary

It’s what you might call service journalism, but it’s something I’ve been seeing a need to write for a while: How to buy a dictionary, my latest column in the Malaysia Star.

A popular question from English language-learners and native speakers alike is, “What dictionary should I use or buy?”

There are many bad dictionaries. It’s difficult to tell what’s worth your money and time and what isn’t. So, let me offer you some ways that you can help distinguish the good dictionaries from the bad ones.

Use or buy two dictionaries.

The editorial guidelines of dictionaries can vary greatly. They control what words are included, how thorough the definitions are, what kind of special features are added, and for what reading level the text is written.

Just as two parents contribute something to the creation of every child, each dictionary will contribute different things to your understanding of English words.

Make sure they’re from two different publishers.

It’s not uncommon for publishers to repackage the same dictionary material into many different forms.

To be sure you are getting two truly different viewpoints on a word and its meaning, you need to use dictionaries that have different content. The best way to ensure that is to make sure they’re published by different companies.

Use a learner’s dictionary and a general-use dictionary.

Even further, you might do best to use one dictionary that is for learners and another that is intended for general use at home or the workplace. They have different goals and different content.

The learners’ dictionaries tend to have simpler definitions, more information about collocations (words that tend to appear together), more extra material like synonyms and antonyms, and fewer overall words.

General-use dictionaries tend to define more words, to include more etymological information, to include more encyclopaedic information (such as biographies of famous people), and they tend to be physically larger.

Make sure the book was recently published.

You need a dictionary that is current. Make sure it was published in the last five years.

Look for recent words.

Publishers will often republish dictionaries over decades without updating the material with new entries, or at the most with only the barest few new entries.

In the United States, it’s common to find cheap dictionaries for just a few dollars that claim to contain tens of thousand of words. They’re perfectly good dictionaries—except they don’t include words like Internet or computer or anything else that’s modern. They’re simply reselling old material.

Make sure the dictionaries you choose have other modern words that wouldn’t have been used more than two decades ago like weblog, blogosphere, hybrid car, text messaging, SMS, LOL, and other technical or recent words. Finding these will help ensure that the dictionary has been updated relatively recently.

Look for dirty words.

All parts of English are important, even those trouble-making words that are coarse, derogatory, or sexual. A good lexicographer will include the most common words of all kinds, including ones that can be troublesome.

If a dictionary’s editors have chosen to leave out words they consider offensive, we must also wonder what other words they have left out. What are their criteria for judging words to be offensive? Are they leaving out words that concern any religion but their own? Are they leaving out words that deal with political viewpoints they don’t support? Are they leaving out words simply because they think they’re ugly? Are they including words simply because they like them? Are they deleting insulting words for their own ethnic group and leaving in insulting words for other groups?

This may surprise you, but I usually recommend that parents give adult dictionaries to their children. It is important for children to get frank, matter-of-fact meanings for words rather than getting the wrong idea from other children, yet many children’s dictionaries don’t include these troublesome words.

Naughty words lose a lot of their power when they are explained in dry, ordinary dictionary definitions instead of accompanied by the giggle and wink of the playground. Children are also usually relieved that the words really are more boring and ordinary than they first sound.

Of course, by not listing the words here, I am assuming that you are an adult who already knows them. If you are a child, I encourage you to seek out a parent or other adult you respect. Ask them to explain these words in plain language, or better, ask them to show you a good dictionary in which you can look up the words for yourself.

Make sure there are sample sentences.

Lots of them. It is easier to learn the meaning of a word from sample sentences than it is from definitions. This is why learners’ dictionaries—those designed for students who are learning English—have so many of them.

Don’t be persuaded by superficial features.

Etymologies, for example, are interesting, but they are largely irrelevant when it comes to using a dictionary for schoolwork (unless you are specifically writing about word origins) or for preparing business reports.

Coloured text, too, is often not worth the extra money and colour photographs are a luxury unless the dictionary is primarily a picture dictionary.

Posted April 30, 2008

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