Of all the world’s languages, English probably has the widest range of dictionaries. This wide range makes it difficult for PhD students and young researchers to choose among them. This article looks at some of the ways in which monolingual, or English-to-English, dictionaries differ from one another to help you find the right one for you.
1. Number of words: No dictionary can claim to include every word that you may encounter. The smaller dictionaries need to be particularly choosy in deciding what words to include. Typically, desk dictionaries (as opposed to pocket dictionaries) include 100 000 to 180,000 words and unabridged dictionaries include more than 265,000 words. The most comprehensive dictionary in English is the Oxford Dictionary of English, which no longer appears in printed form: its second edition, published in 1989, ran to 20 volumes, weighed more than 60 kg, and covered 291,500 words. From the third edition, the dictionary is available only in electronic form and is updated regularly.
2. Sequence of meanings: A difference that matters a great deal to users is the order in which different meanings of the same word are presented. Dictionaries on historical principles – and the Oxford Dictionary of English is one of those – present the meanings in chronological order, with the oldest meaning given first. Most modern desk dictionaries, however, present the most common meaning first and the least common meaning last, an arrangement that is convenient to most users.
3. Illustrative quotations: To show how a particular word is used, most dictionaries include example sentences. Some dictionaries use made-up examples, which are more efficient and save space, whereas other dictionaries only use only those sentences that have appeared in published or recorded sources to illustrate the meaning of a word in context.
4. Illustrations: In many cases, it is easier to explain the meaning of a word using an illustration than to capture the meaning using words alone. Take the word ‘blade,’ for example: an illustration makes it easy to distinguish between the blade of a knife, a razor blade, and a blade of grass.
In fact, visual dictionaries represent a special category of dictionaries: these dictionaries are collections of images in which each image and each part of an image is clearly labelled. For example, if you want to know the word for the stiffened metal or plastic ends of a shoelace, a conventional dictionary is of no use—whereas a pictorial dictionary shows you that the word you are looking for is ‘aglet.’
5. Variety of English: Being a world language, English has several recognized variants, American and British being the two major varieties. The most commonly used dictionary of American English is Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (11th edition), followed by the American Heritage Dictionary (5th edition), whereas Oxford dictionaries are probably the most commonly referred to for British English. However, standard dictionaries are also available for Canadian English (the Oxford Canadian Dictionary, for example) and for Australian English (including the Australian National Dictionary, also published by Oxford University Press, and the Macquarie Dictionary, which is now in its 6th edition).
Hope this article and the one published earlier (English dictionaries: how to choose the right one) help you in finding an English dictionary that suits your needs.