Dictionaries differ greatly in purpose, size, and price; and choosing one is a very personal decision. The best advice is to make a note of the things you and your family look up in a dictionary over a few weeks’ time, and then choose one at a good book shop. Here are a few things to look for in making your selection.

Monolingual or Bilingual?

Most teachers and educators agree that very few bilingual dictionaries get close in the quality of information to that found in learners’ monolingual dictionaries produced by publishers such as Longman, Cambridge, Collins or Oxford. Although learners may find bilingual dictionaries easier to use, in the long run the use of monolingual dictionaries is far more beneficial to learners.

Size

Big dictionaries are expensive and take a lot of room in your office or home. They are also difficult for children to use because they are bulky, and it takes longer to look something up. An full-sized dictionary on the coffee table might impress your friends, but unless you use a dictionary on a daily basis, it probably is not a good buy.

Pronunciation Guide

Many people use a dictionary to help them pronounce new words.

The pronunciation guide should be complete but not contain a lot of unfamiliar symbols that require continual cross-checking – especially with the vowels. The English vowel system is complex because we use one letter to spell many different sounds. For example, the letter A has three different sounds in the words at, age, and art. The job for the dictionary makers is to find three common symbols to represent the different pronunciations.

Examples

Sample sentences showing common uses of words are very helpful, both in clarifying the meaning and helping the reader remember the word. The words in the sentences should not be any more difficult than the target word, however, or the reader is sent off on a frustrating chase through the dictionary. In the words of technology, “A good dictionary should be user-friendly.”

Usage Notes

Many dictionaries comment on the usage of words in different types of situations. Many of the old dictionaries contained only the standard accepted usages. The dictionaries do comment on the usage – non-standard, colloquial and regional are some of the terms used to let readers make their own decisions as to whether they want to use the term.

One final comment – forms of speech change much more quickly than written forms; and many spoken items never make it to the written language (slang, for example). For this reason, you will need to buy several dictionaries during your reading life. Find one that you like, and consider its new editions when it’s time for a new one.

 
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