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?
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.
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.
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?