A Definition of a Rose is Still a Rose, Right?

We all learned to use reference works in the fourth grade. Yet as a government writing trainer, I still teach reference works to adult professionals. And I get lots of questions about what would seem like “the basics,” such as – which dictionary should I be using?

As our jobs become more complicated, so do our reference works.

As our jobs become more complicated, so do our reference works.

It is not because these questions are basic, or because our public school system is inadequate. (That’s another subject entirely.) It is because the more we know, the more we discover we need to learn. So here is some advice about how to tell the difference between a few of the more popular dictionaries.

Most online searches of a word will result in a definition from TheFreeDictionary.com. It seems worthwhile to at least know where their definitions come from. Their Dictionary Home Page indicates that they use Houghton Mifflin’s American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition.

The American Heritage Dictionary was founded in 1969 and relies on a usage panel of essayists, poets, and educators to determine both the correct use of a word and the ways in which language is evolving.

The American Heritage Dictionary also contains lots of illustrations and is widely used in educational institutions. TheFreeDictionary.com is one of several sites that use the American Heritage Dictionary under an electronic license, a practice that Houghton Mifflin encourages as part of its business model.

Where the American Heritage Dictionary is insufficient, it is supplemented by Collins English Dictionary, which is frequently updated. Founded in the late ‘70s, it is now in its 12th edition.

Finally, TheFreeDictionary.com attempts to mimic the Oxford English Dictionary by providing examples of word usage from literary classics. The definitions are not exhaustive and the examples are not original, unlike the example they are trying to mimic.

The OED, as it is more commonly known, is a historical dictionary, meaning that it places less emphasis on the current meaning of a word and more on a word’s etymology, its first appearance in English, and its evolution. The dictionary includes quotes from either famous literary writers or quality publications.

George Orwell is the 783rd most frequently quoted author in the OED, with 605 quotes attributed to him.

George Orwell is the 783rd most frequently quoted author in the OED, with 605 quotes attributed to him.

The OED used to be a print publication, only accessible in the reference sections of university and research libraries. Today it is exclusively an online resource and the average user still requires library patronage to access it.

Some university and research libraries will partner with organizations near them. You should check with the science or technical adviser at your organization to learn more about possible partnerships. You  may also want to look at patron, scholar, and alumni research options.

The OED also offers a Word of the Day email service. It’s an easy way to expand your vocabulary and learn more about the origins, history, and evolution of our mother tongue.

Finally, Oxford prints other dictionaries, such as the New Oxford American Dictionary, the Oxford Dictionary of English, and the Oxford Dictionary of Word Origins. Each of these has a different purpose and audience than the Oxford English Dictionary, and American authors who are looking for words in common parlance are better served by an American dictionary, such as Merriam-Webster.

Merriam purchased the first American dictionary from Noah Webster’s estate and has built the Merriam-Webster family of dictionaries around it since the mid-1800’s. Merriam-Webster thus serves as the original, unbroken line for American letters.

Near the turn of the (twentieth) century, the dictionary was expanded and renamed Merriam-Webster New International to reflect a global approach to language. And in the mid-twentieth century, it became more descriptive of language use and change, a style that, while criticized at the time, is now being adopted by others, including the OED.

Both Merriam-Webster’s website and its free app, available in both iPhone and Android versions, offer comprehensive definitions and audio pronunciations. I think that these features make it preferable for scientific and technical writers who wish to be certain of their definitions but who are not necessarily interested in a word’s changing meaning.

I hope this clarifies the origins and uses of a few of the more popular dictionaries available today. What sources do you commonly use when you’re stuck for a definition? And how else do you use reference works like dictionaries?


  1. Hi Michelle,

    This is a fantastic post on an important subject! I always defer to Merriam-Webster’s online edition when I need to check definitions or things like the proper spelling of plural words or whether there are any variations in accepted spelling.


  2. I use Roget’s Super Thesaurus, Websters high school dictionary from the 40’s and 50’s (don’t laugh it is a great book) and other dictionaries for reference. As a natural born insightful linguist I love words and their definitions especially how they fit into sentences and how the proper spelling of a word can affect the sense of a paragraph.

    Happy word search.

  3. Hello, Michelle!
    Thank you for a beautiful review. Really thank you for your help to us. Everyone needs help in just about any categorical field of work from time to time. Fortunately, people can now attain the help they need with their writing in one of today’s most popular grammatical, orthographic sites and online dictionaries.
    I usually use Dictionary.net if i need a quick answer. It is an online dictionary that covers everything. They set out not to just give pages and pages of definitions but to enrich. A modern take on the dictionary. A cross between an urban dictionary and the Oxford English that invites users to add and improve through a wiki. And, of course, if I need some serious research I use all resource you listed.
    The best!

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