How to Choose a Dictionary

Most people have used a dictionary of some sort. All dictionaries are not created equal. The dictionary you should choose depends on your needs. Here are some things to consider before you choose a dictionary.

Steps

1. Know what general sort of dictionary you need. Here are the basics you should decide before you begin looking:

  • Languages. Are you looking for a dictionary in English, with definitions in English? Are you looking for a translating dictionary, a book that will allow you to look up words in your language and find words in another language?
  • Size. For print dictionaries, will you be carrying this dictionary with you in a pocket, purse, or briefcase or will it remain on a desk or bookshelf somewhere?
  • Scope. Do you want a general dictionary? Do you want a dictionary that includes technical terms or terms relating to a particular field or specialty? Some dictionaries specialize in words pertaining to certain subjects, such as music or law.
  • Binding. Do you care if your dictionary is hardcover or paperback? Do you prefer a book that will stay open by itself, or do you mind holding the pages open while you use it?
  • Print or digital format. Printed dictionaries require no electricity to operate. On the other hand, they are updated only by purchasing a new one.
2. Look for newer words. New words enter the language all the time. Ask yourself, does the dictionary include current technology and computer terms?
3. Look for proper nouns. Does the dictionary mention Arizona? Does it mention important people?
4. Look for slang and vulgar words. Even if you think you already know these words in your own language or you don’t wish to use them, you may not want to neglect them in another language, simply to understand what others are saying.
5. Check for regional words, if you know them in the language(s) your dictionary treats. For example, the words biscuit, cookie, chips, and crisps mean slightly different things depending on where in the English-speaking world you hear them. If your dictionary is written for a certain region, be sure you know which region it is before you buy it.
6. Examine the reference matter at the front and back. Does it have a pronunciationkey? Do you understand it and know how to use it? Did you have to read the pronunciation key, or could you make a pretty good guess? If it is a translating dictionary, does it include a usage section or a phrasebook section? Are these features that you will use when using this dictionary?
7. Find out how the dictionary handles terms with multiple meanings. This is particularly important in a translating dictionary. In English word “board” can mean a piece of wood, and it can mean a committee. In most other languages, you will need a bit of guidance to choose the correct translation according to your meaning.
8. Notice whether the dictionary includes phrases and idioms and see how it handles them. Again, these can vary between regions, so be sure to note if regional differences are mentioned.
9. Read a few sample definitions. Try to choose both familiar and unfamiliar entries. Are they clear? Do you understand them? In an English dictionary, are etymologies listed and are they clear? Does the dictionary give examples of the word in use? Are they citations from published works? Does the dictionary include synonyms or other information about the word?

Tips

  • Try a side-by-side comparison of online dictionaries. Go to a dictionary aggregator such as Onelook.com and type in a few sample words. You may want to follow the links to the originating dictionaries to see the entire entry.
  • The number of words, while a rough indication of the scope, is not always important in choosing a dictionary. A pocket dictionary for travel may be carefully edited to include fewer words, but they may be chosen to be of greatest use to travelers.
  • With dual language dictionaries, if possible, ask someone with experience in both languages for a few terms that are difficult to translate because there is no word that matches the meaning in the other language. Some dictionaries simply omit these terms, others give an incorrect or incomplete translation, and others give an explanation. For example, lašiniai [la shi nay'] in Lithuanian refers to pork fat, regardless of the size piece or whether it is cooked, cured, or raw. It can also refer to a person’s ‘spare tire’. These terms are often part of the oldest language and can be a real handicap in understanding everyday texts. Lašiniai, for example, can appear on restaurant menus. So how they are handled is important.

Things You’ll Need

  • Book retailer (store or online)

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This entry was posted on Monday, January 16th, 2012 at 3:11 pm and is filed under Entertainment. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.