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Subject: Review of American Dictionaries
Question: I have read many reviews of American dictionaries by non-experts,
but do you know of any by experts? I am trying to answer the
question: are all American dictionaries equally good, or do
professional linguists consider one of them to be the best? In
other words, does it really matter which dictionary you use? (I am
an editor, and dictionaries are crucial for settling editing

Reply: Hi, James,

Well, one of my linguistic caps says 'lexicographer/lexicologist'
on it, but I haven't worked specifically on or with American
dictionaries in a concentrated way for a number of years now, and
for an editor like you, being up to date is obviously important.
That said, I have always liked Webster's International *2nd*
edition. This is not a dig at the much-maligned (and mostly
unfairly) 3rd edition, it's just that that's the one I used in
high school for my first research in linguistics (now almost 60
years ago, almost 10 years before the 3rd edition was even
published). This also points up the fact that one's favorite
dictionary is very much a personal choice, depending on many
personal, subjective factors. However, there are things to be
taken objectively into consideration in making a decision on
which dictionary to use. I would plump for having a variety of
good dictionaries around. Personally, I happen to like the old-
fashioned hardbound (or, for smaller dictionaries, softbound)
versions, but there are many online dictionaries nowadays, and
some of them are even acceptable to a 'professional'. In any
case, it is difficult to have a respectable dictionary currently
that is lacking in certain 'modern' aspects.

Any decent dictionary should be based on a large, well-selected
corpus, which includes a wide variety of different genres of
text, including the spoken language (in your case, optimally the
American National Corpus [ANC]). Nowadays, 'large' *starts* at
100 million words. This is usually well-processed text, with
part-of-speech labels on each word and usually further syntactic
processing (mostly or partly automatically done), as well as
clear sense distinctions. Then there are different sizes of
dictionaries. Theoretical and practical research over the last
half-century or so has shown that there are literally an
*infinite* number of words in any language, including English, so
no dictionary can aspire to being 'complete'. What you want is to
be able to find whatever information about whichever word you are
querying relatively easily. This, of course, is a tall order and
is why most professional dictionary users have a range of
dictionaries (print, on-computer and online) at hand, as I
recommend. Most modern print dictionaries are about the 'College'
size (from 25,000 to about 60,000 'words' -- lexical entries, or
lemmas), principally for economic reasons. Nevertheless, such a
size is easy to use, but coverage, as you know, is also
important. Nowadays, with Google and other search engines, it is
a bit easier to find a word we do not know (or even a new or
unknown usage of a word we know), and in context also, which
helps in understanding specific usages. Likewise, there are very
large, recent corpora for many languages, such as the ANC for
American English, which can provide us with accessible examples
for analysis in the elaboration and updating of dictionaries of
various types.
(Note: While I do not claim 'expertise' in dictionaries of
American English, I can give you a few pointers. The American
Heritage Dictionary ('college' size) was perhaps the first
American dictionary to be based on a computerized corpus, large
for the time (about 5-6 million words of selected text, from
around 1970), and I have always considered it a good one. There
are a number of other good dictionaries, including the old
standby, Merriam Webster's. If you can find one based on the ANC
(available now for about a decade), that would be a
recommendation in itself, since that is undoubtedly the best
resource available for Am. English and is designed to constantly
be growing in a disciplined way. Random House publishes a highly-
regarded dictionary. You should read reviews, also, of
dictionaries. There is an American journal _Dictionaries_,
founded some decades ago, which you should check out for reviews,
among others. You can do this in a large university library near
you, if there is one. If not, then when you go to a large city
you can check them out. When you find a dictionary that seems to
be a possible candidate (again, go to a large library, look up
*dictionary, American English* and go to the *reference* part of
the library and look for that shelf (should start with 'PE' in
the Library of Congress cataloguing system).

In short, using libraries and Google, you need to do your
homework to find which dictionaries are likely to be most
serviceable for you (and don't forget the OED from Oxford U.
Press--British English, basically, but still fundamental; other
good, well-respected *British* dictionaries are COBUILD and
Longmans'--especially the former, from a computernik's point of
view). Note that dictionaries (including on CD and by online
computer subscription) are relatively expensive, so 'stocking up'
will not be cheap -- all the more reason to be selective. Btw,
you should *use* each candidate dictionary as much as you can
(maybe make up a list of words that you look up [or have looked
up] over a few months or more, and check each one in each

Well, I hope this helps.


James L. Fidelholtz
Graduate Program in Language Sciences
Instituto de Ciencias Sociales y Humanidades
Benem'erita Universidad Aut'onoma de Puebla, M'EXICO
Reply From: James L Fidelholtz      click here to access email
Date: 01-Apr-2013
Other Replies:
  1. Re: Review of American Dictionaries    John M. Lawler     (01-Apr-2013)
  2. Re: Review of American Dictionaries    Charley Rowe     (01-Apr-2013)
  3. Re: Review of American Dictionaries    Susan D Fischer     (01-Apr-2013)

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