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How to Choose the Right Dictionary

Updated on August 28, 2016
Jule Romans profile image

Jule Romans has been writing articles and academic papers since the early 1990s. She teaches English at a small rural high school.


Choose the right dictionary based on its purpose, location, and how often you work (or play) with words. To choose the right dictionary, you can follow five basic steps.

1. Know Your Purpose.

Determine the purpose of the dictionary you will choose.

Determine why you need the dictionary. Think about the specific purpose it will serve. Dictionaries have many variations. Some are better for students, some are better for simple tasks, some are great for research, some can help with games and puzzles. Pick your purpose before you pick the book.

2. Explore Your Options.

Take a good look at the dictionary choices that will suit your purpose.

Explore all the different brands and styles within your chosen category. There are many types of crossword dictionaries. Each of these can help with many kinds of word puzzles and games. There are dozens of student-centered dictionaries, each suited to a different level of education. Get to know the range of options that would suit your purpose.

3. Balance Cost With Use.

Keep the cost in line with how much you plan to use your new dictionary.

It doesn't make sense to make a huge investment in a dictionary that you plan to use for a short amount of time. You may plan to use the dictionary a great deal, but only for a year or so. If that is the case, a medium priced hardback book will do the trick. You may intend to use the dictionary for a long amount of time. If you are an English major or a teacher, you are likely to use the dictionary often and for a long amount of time. A larger volume that may be more expensive is probably a wise purchase in that case.

4. Narrow your choices by considering location.

Think about where you will be using your dictionary most often. Use that to create a short list.

If you are going to be using your dictionary at home near your desk, you'll want a more comprehensive volume that does not need to be portable. If you want a quick reference that you will be carrying around with you, an electronic or paperbound version is what you'll need. You may want a volume that will do a little of both. There are other places you might be using the dictionary. Some people do crosswords in bed. They will want a dictionary that fits easily on a nightstand and isn't too cumbersome to use. Other people may want a dictionary that they can keep by their favorite chair in the living room. In that case, there might be a wider range of choices. Create a list of three or four versions that suit your preferred location.

5. Examine three to five dictionaries closely.

Take time to read customer reviews, look inside the books, and test the size of print.

Take at least 5-10 minutes to look over your short list of choices. Pay attention to the size of the print on the page, the number and tyles of entries, the guide and reference material in the front. Consider the cover and the overall look and feel of the book. Since you already know that all these books will work, the choice becomes easy. After looking closely and reading what others have to say, look for the volume that appeals to you most. That's it. Just pick the one you like. In other words, you are now able to...

Choose the right dictionary!


Know Your Purpose

The first step is to define the purpose of your dictionary. If you are going to choose the right dictionary, it has to be suited to the task at hand.

What do you need to do? Are you looking to quickly find the correct spellings for difficult words? Or, are you more interested in finding out the history and origins of words? Do you want help with word games? Are you planning to write a number of research papers?

These kinds of questions will help you find the purpose and choose the right dictionary.There really is a dictionary for almost every purpose you can imagine.

There are short-reference dictionaries that provide the briefest of definitions. There are entire dictionaries devoted to spelling, rhyming, crossword puzzles, and all kinds of word games. There are sets of dictionaries designed for students at all levels- from elementary school all the way through college. There are dictionaries that elaborate on the etymology of words and contain oodles of reference material. English teachers and Shakespeare buffs love these. And, yes, there are entire dictionaries devoted to Shakepeare.

So, determine your purpose first.

Explore Your Options

There are thousands and thousands of dictionaries in thousands and thousands of forms. Once you know your purpose, explore within that category.

Look in the predictable places like online shopping sites and ordinary bookstore chains. Be sure to spend some time in your local independent bookstores as well.

While you are exploring, look for some of these selections. They may provide a starting point.

Puzzle and Game Dictionaries

  • The Official Scrabble Players Dictionary
  • Merriam Webster Crossword Puzzle Dictionary
  • The Million Word Crossword Dictionary
  • The New York Times Crossword Dictionary

Spelling Dictionaries

  • Webster's New World Pocket Misspeller's Dictionary
  • Instant Speller's Dictionary
  • Barron's Pocket Guide to Correct Spelling
  • DK Pockets Spelling Dictionary
  • Oxford School Spelling Dictionary

Rhyming Dictionaries

  • Merriam Webster's Rhyming Dictionary
  • The Complete Rhyming Dictionary
  • Essential Songwriter's Rhyming Dictionary
  • The Penguin Rhyming Dictionary
  • The New Comprehensive America Rhyming Dictionary

Dictionaries for Children

  • Scholastic Children's Dictionary
  • Children's Illustrated Dictionary by DK Books
  • The American Heritage Children's Dictionary
  • Webster's New World Children's Dictionary
  • MacMillan Dictionary for Children

Student Dictionaries

  • Merriam-Webster's Elementary Dictionary
  • Merriam-Websters' Intermediate Dictionary
  • The American Heritage High School Dictionary

College Dictionaries

  • The New American Webster Handy College Dictionary
  • Compact Oxford English Dictionary for University and College
  • The American Heritage College Dictionary
  • Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary

Special Interest Dictionaries

  • The Oxford Dictionary of English Grammar
  • The McGraw-Hill Dictionary of Environmental Science
  • The Dictionary of Engineering
  • The New Dictionary of Cultural Literacy
  • The American Slang Dictionary and Thesaurus

Other Types of Dictionaries

  • Dictionaries for Professionals
  • Religious Dictionaries
  • Encyclopedic Dictionaries
  • Biographical Dictionaries
  • Desk and Reference Dictionaries
  • Dictionary Sets
  • Electronic Dictionaries
  • Short-Form Dictionaries

Balance Your Costs with Use

If you simply need an occasional reference for hard-to-spell words, then you won't want to make a large cash outlay. Chances are, the dictionary won't get much use. Choose a paperbound or inexpensive electronic version.

If you are a lover of words, you will probably not think twice about spending $50.00 or more for a dictionary. For English aficionados, a dictionary is a great investment. Most writers and college studetns will use their dictionaries almost every day. If this is your situation, you'll want to choose a high-quality hardbound book. It will be worth the price

There are actually many people who will spend hundreds of dollars on dictionaries. English teachers, lovers of Shakespeare, poets, and serious literary writers enjoy studying words. Some of them (myself included) own several different dictionaries. If you have ever simply read a dictionary for fun, you belong in this category. Buy the most expensive high-quality dictionary you can afford. You'll be glad. You may even buy one more.

Yes, people really do pay $1,000 for a dictionary.

I have one on my wish list.

Oxford English Dictionary: 20 vol. print set & CD ROM
Oxford English Dictionary: 20 vol. print set & CD ROM

$1,000 for a dictionary? You'd be surprised-English geeks love this book.


Narrow Down Your Choices

Once you have made some eliminations based on cost, narrow your list. Choose three to five different dictionaries to examine more closely.

Take time to read review of each of the dictionaries on your list. Think about where you plan to use the book. Will you need an electronic version that can fit in a backpack? Or will you be using the dictionary at your desk in the office? Will you need the dictionary at work?

The location where you'll be using the dictionary will influence your choices. It can be useful to select different forms of dictionaries as well. Choose one electronic version to add to your list. Many of the newer versions of dictionaries also have supplemental CD-ROMs. Of course, if you plan to use your dictionary on a portable device, you may prefer something with a flash drive or built-in memory.

Examine Choices Closely

Look carefully at each of your choices. Consider some of the following things:

  • Size and style of print
  • Types of illustrations, if any
  • Cover type
  • Reputation of the publisher
  • User reviews
  • Cost
  • Durability
  • Ease of use
  • Level of detail in entries
  • Additional information added in the reference sections at the front and back of the dictionary

All of these items can influence how much you gain from your dictionary once you have purchased it. Take your time. Consider all the factors on the above list, but also keep an open mind. You may find a dictionary that simply appeals to you for no apparent reason. As long as it fits your other requirements, it will be a good purchase.

No matter how much research you do, choosing a dictionary ultimately comes down to one key question. Will you enjoy the dictionary and actually use it?


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