Sunday, October 09, 2005


Dear Reader,

Yes, your dictionaries. You do not really believe anyone can master the English language, do you? Learning English is a lifelong effort, and among the indispensible tools for that permanent study are good dictionaries, of which there are many.

The most comprehensive English dictionary is The Oxford English Dictionary, aka the OED, a twenty-volume, 22,000-page reference on English. If you find that as intimidating a format as I do, I suggest The Compact Oxford English Dictionary, which photoreduces the entire OED down to just 2,416 pages; it includes a magnifying glass, but I find I can read the fine print without it. If you find even that daunting, I can recommend Oxford English Dictionary Online. I cannot recommend the CD-ROM version of the OED, since the software was written to emphasize the protection of their intellectual property over usability to the point of inconvenience and unreliability, according to most of the user reviews on Amazon.

The Chicago Manual of Style recommends you use two dictionaries: Webster's Third New International Dictionary (book and CD-ROM) and its more frequently updated abridgment, Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (book only; a CD-ROM version is available separately). Webster's Third New International is far more complete than Merriam-Webster's Collegiate, but the Collegiate is updated more often, which is why Chicago recommends both.

You need not own these dictionaries, but you need some dictionaries, and you should explore them. Our words influence our ideas, or lack thereof.

Yours truly,


Beverly Marshall Saling said...

Do be aware, when using the OED, that the word "Oxford" is your clue that its preferred spelling and usage are British English, not American. American authors and publishers must avoid letting the odd "grey" or "travelled" slip into their writing or risk sounding affected, like a guy with an American accent who periodically says a word or two as if he were Queen Elizabeth.

Danny Barer said...

The Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary has been my constant companion since I received it for my Bar Mitzvah in 1978 (which, I suppose, kinda defeats its usefulness as a frequently-updated dictionary). One disadvantage of unabridged dictionaries is that they are more cumbersome to keep on your desk as you write.