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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 wars.)
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 dictionary). Well, I hope this helps. Jim 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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