Tips for researchers: How to choose the right English dictionary
Tips for researchers on using English dictionaries
This series includes posts for researchers, especially non-native English researchers, who wish to understand how they can use English dictionaries to improve their scientific writing. You will find tips on how to select the correct dictionary and use it optimally.
For many researchers and PhD students, getting published in English language seems a bit of a challenge. In such a case, a good dictionary can support their endeavor. The range of English dictionaries is indeed very wide, and if you are to choose a dictionary that meets your needs, you need to know how dictionaries differ from one another and, equally important, what you expect from them. This article focuses on the different purposes for which you may consult a dictionary.
The many uses of a dictionary
Although a dictionary is most commonly used to look up an unfamiliar word and to find out what it means, we often use dictionaries for other purposes. Think of a dictionary as a multi-purpose tool. Just as the famous Swiss Army knife comes in many versions to suit different needs of users, so do English dictionaries. Here are some common categories of word-related information available from a dictionary:
1. Meaning: It is not always enough to know what a word means; for it to become part of our active vocabulary, we need to how a given word is used, how it differs from other words with a similar meaning, whether it is considered too formal or too informal, and so on.
2. Spelling: We may know what a given word means and how to use it, but we may be unsure of how it is spelt. Most word processors offer a built-in dictionary, which makes it easy enough to look up the correct spelling. However, at times we need more information: for example, we may have to choose between alternative spellings (whisky and whiskey, convenor and convener, and so on); we may need to know how to print that word (web site or website, health care or healthcare, email or e-mail, etc.); we may want to know its plural form (forums or fora, indexes or indices, and so on); and we may want to check where to break it if a line cannot accommodate the entire word (pro-gress or prog-ress, atmos-phere or atmo-sphere, etc.) The New Oxford Spelling Dictionary, for example, shows the points at which words may be divided.
If you think you are good at spelling, take the Oxford Dictionaries Spelling Challenge: you can choose a level (tricky, difficult, and fiendish) and also choose between British and US English. The test consists of listening to a word and typing out its spelling.
3. Pronunciation: Dictionaries on CDs and computers with speakers have made it very easy to find out how a word is pronounced. You can even choose between British and American pronunciation. Without such a facility, we need to know the phonetic alphabet, which was especially developed to show pronunciation.
4. Etymology: Sometimes it helps to know how a word is derived. For example, the word perihelion is derived from two Greek words, namely peri (around) and helios (sun). Since space is always a constraint in printed dictionaries, some dictionaries skip this information.
5. Scope: Dictionaries are about words and encyclopaedias are about things, which is why most British dictionaries used to exclude entries for people or places. American dictionaries, on the other hand, were typically encyclopaedic, with entries for people and places. Over time, British dictionaries have expanded their scope, and Collins English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English are among such encyclopaedic dictionaries.
6. Recreation: Scrabble and crossword enthusiasts are intensive users of dictionaries, and there are specialist dictionaries to cater to them, such as Official Scrabble Words and the Official Scrabble Players Dictionary.
Once you know which of these categories of information you need most often, you are better equipped in selecting a dictionary that suits your needs.
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