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How to choose the right dictionary

How to choose the right dictionary

It’s tempting to think that all dictionaries are much the same and that choosing the right one would be easy. But there are many different types of dictionary, and even dictionaries of the same type can vary considerably in their style and content.

What are your choices and how do you decide which dictionary would best serve your needs?

Paper, electronic, online or app?

Until relatively recently, dictionaries were only available in paper form and could be enormous works published in several volumes. The 20 volumes of the Oxford English Dictionary would be a wonderful reference work for many potential users to keep at home but certainly not the practical choice for taking to school or college. Even abridged versions of the various dictionaries can be hefty tomes to lug about.

These days you have many exciting options, including lightweight and portable electronic devices, dictionaries on CD, online resources and even apps for your smartphone. These give you access to vast amounts of information and enable you to search quickly and efficiently. Audio functionality means that you can listen to pronunciations rather than having to master the finer points of the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). In addition, images can help you research and understand unfamiliar subjects.

How to choose the right dictionary

Thanks to advances in technology and the availability of dictionaries online, the scope of these reference works is now unlimited. There’s something to help you with just about anything you would like to do. Our favourite online dictionary has more than 500 dictionaries in 26 languages; check

 them out here!

Does size matter?

Size certainly matters, especially if you are looking for a printed dictionary or to choose one as a gift.

The smaller your paper dictionary, the easier it is to carry with you. But smaller, abridged dictionaries contain fewer entries, and each entry will feature less information about a word than that provided in the unabridged version. This might not matter if all you need is something to help you choose the right words for an essay at school and how to spell them correctly.  Indeed, although a larger dictionary will give you access to far more information, this could be information that you don’t need and that will only serve to make looking up the entries you are interested in more time-consuming.

How to choose the right dictionary

On the other hand, if you are conducting in-depth research for your PhD, a pocket-friendly dictionary may be too limited in scope. You could benefit from a larger dictionary. Alternatively, a specialist dictionary that contains only entries related to a specific field might be the practical solution.

Electronic dictionaries enable you to access huge databases and a variety of information related to the listed words. Better still, you can access that information from a portable device. But even electronic dictionaries vary considerably, so you need to think about why you want to use specific dictionaries.

Meaning, spelling, etymology or pronunciation?

Do you want to look up the meanings of words, their spellings, their etymologies or their pronunciations? Is historical information crucial to your endeavour, or would you simply like to know how a word is used today? Are you researching a specific subject or are you trying to translate a text?


The most common reasons for using a dictionary are to look up the meanings of words or to see how words should be spelt. It is important to bear in mind that abridged paper dictionaries will not list every possible sense of a word. Some words have hundreds of different senses. It would be impossible to feature them all in a small dictionary and so concise dictionaries tend to offer only definitions of common or current usages. Similar or related words may not be included, and grammatical information may be limited.

Merely discovering a word’s principal meanings and usages might not be enough. It can be useful to understand the nuances of those meanings. How does the usage of that word differ from those of other words with similar meanings? Is the word formal or informal? Is it falling out of usage? Is the meaning of the word evolving into something new? The greater the scope of the dictionary, the more you will be able to discover about each word.

To complicate matters, it is worth exploring the relative merits of dictionaries that are equal in scope. It’s useful to choose a few words and then look at each dictionary’s listings for these. You can then decide which dictionary you find the easiest to use, which you feel is the easiest to understand or which presents the information you most need. Remember that dictionaries can be prescriptive or descriptive. Prescriptive dictionaries describe how the compilers feel the word should be used, descriptive dictionaries describe how a word is actually used.


Spelling is also a complicated issue. The correct spelling of words in the same

language may vary from one country to another. Words may have alternative spellings and you might need to know the plural forms of words.

How to choose the right dictionary

The English language is particularly problematic when it comes to plurals. There are further potential issues to think about such as where you should divide a word if it straddles a line break or page break in written text.

A spelling dictionary could prove useful if your primary concern is the correct presentation of your work in writing.


Dictionaries are multipurpose tools that can provide so much more than definitions of words and correct spellings. They can also give you the etymology of words – their origins and how they have changed throughout history. Some dictionaries offer only examples of current usages while dictionaries of greater scope will identify all known meanings and usages of words throughout history together with references and examples.


In a paper dictionary, the listing for each word will include an explanation of its pronunciation. This will usually be expressed using the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA). You will need to familiarise yourself with the IPA if you are to correctly interpret the pronunciations of the words.

Electronic dictionaries are more user-friendly in this regard as most have audio functionality that enables you to hear the words pronounced. Some offer pronunciations specific to the various territories where a language is spoken.

For example, you may be able to listen to British English and American English pronunciations of a word.

Monolingual or bilingual?

Are you looking for a dictionary of your native language, are you learning a language, or do you need to translate a text?

Monolingual dictionaries feature definitions of words in a single language. Bilingual dictionaries (translation dictionaries) provide translations of words from one language into another.

The best of these dictionaries give you examples of the words in context and the grammatical rules that would help a non-native speaker to use the words correctly.

Bilingual dictionaries may be unidirectional or bidirectional. Unidirectional dictionaries offer translations from one language into the other, for example English to French. Bidirectional dictionaries provide translations from each of the languages concerned into the other. For instance, a dictionary could offer translations both from English to German and from German to English.

How to choose the right dictionary

Bilingual dictionaries vary in scope and presentation. Some are compiled with beginners and students in mind while others are aimed at accomplished linguists seeking to refine their understanding of a second language or to study overseas. Professional translators require specialist bilingual dictionaries that cover specific subjects or that detail the terminology of specific fields and industries. Such specific terminology will not be included in many standard dictionaries.

Standard or specialist?

You don’t need to be language professional to benefit from a specialist dictionary. Perhaps your hobby or profession means that the words you need to research are confined to a certain subject.

How to choose the right dictionary

Maybe a rhyming dictionary will help you to write your poetry, to conjure up catchy slogans or to create amusing jokes. If you happen to be a crossword fanatic, there are specialist crossword dictionaries that help you to identify the correct solutions to clues. The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary could prevent many arguments from breaking out amongst friends and family!

If what you really want to do is find unusual words, there are specialist dictionaries for those too. Unusual, Obscure, and Preposterous Words, by Josefa Heifetz, would be a good place to start if you wish to bamboozle your friends.

Are you struggling for words?

There are times when even the most comprehensive dictionary might not help you. Before you can look up a word, you need to know what that word is, that the word exists or roughly how it is spelt. It could be on the tip of your tongue but remain elusive. Reverse dictionaries enable you to enter a description of the word you are looking for and will then provide you with suggestions. Try the reverse dictionary at

How to choose the right dictionary

Visual dictionaries feature illustrations that are labelled with parts and components. These can be very useful indeed, for instance when you need to explain which part of your washing machine appears to have broken. Visual vocabulary dictionaries can unravel many a technical mystery for you and are also available for children. Language learners can take advantage of multilingual visual dictionaries. You can explore the possibilities of a visual dictionary here.

Which dictionary will you choose?

There is clearly much to consider when choosing your dictionary.  Dictionaries vary in their content, style, layout and form. It could be that a concise, abridged monolingual dictionary in print is all you need. But you might benefit from a more comprehensive work or one that covers a specific subject or language.

You will have access to a larger amount of data or more specialised data if you use online resources or apps. But if you are looking to write advertising slogans to kill time while travelling, a hard copy of a rhyming dictionary will be more useful. No single dictionary can be all things to all people. Too much information can be as inconvenient as too little. The chances are that if you need a dictionary professionally or for your studies, you will need to use more than one.

The more dictionaries you explore, the more uses you will find for them!

How to choose the right dictionary


James Myatt

7 min read

Apr 20, 2022



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