Dictionary

There are significant differences in English language dictionaries. There are differences both in the way they handle the standard word definitions, and in the type of extra features they contain.

"WEBSTER'S" DICTIONARIES

"Webster's" is not a copyrighted name, so any company can use it in a title. Two major companies now use "Webster's." The Merriam-Webster Company, whose publications are most often considered THE `Webster's" in the popular use of the term, has published WEBSTER'S NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, and the WEBSTER'S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARY among others. The World Publishing Company's titles include WEBSTER'S NEW WORLD DICTIONARY OF THE AMERICAN LANGUAGE, and WEBSTER'S NEW TWENTIETH CENTURY DICTIONARY. Other companies also use "Webster's," sometimes for cheap and inferior editions.


"UNABRIDGED" DICTIONARIES"

The use of the term "unabridged" is determined by the publisher, and the number of actual entries in the different "unabridged" dictionaries varies considerably. "Unabridged" dictionaries do not include every word in the language, though they do tend to be more complete than the smaller "desk" dictionaries.

There is no dictionary in existence which contains every word in use.

Most common of the unabridged dictionaries are the WEBSTER'S NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, 2d ed. ("WEBSTER'S SECOND"), WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY, FUNK & WAGNALLS NEW STANDARD DICTIONARY, RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, SECOND EDITION, AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY OF THE ENGLISH LANGUAGE, and AMERICAN HERITAGE ILLUSTRATED ENCYCLOPEDIC DICTIONARY (AMERICAN HERITAGE SECOND).


WORDS INCLUDED

Dictionaries will vary in the type of words they include, as well as the number of entries. For example, some contain words no longer used while others have only those in current use. All of the newer dictionaries make an effort to include modem slang and scientific words, but each seems to have picked a different group to include. If you don't find the word you need in one dictionary, be sure to check another if you can. Sometimes a small desk dictionary will have a word not Included in some "unabridged" dictionary.

The English language changes so fast that only a very recently printed dictionary will include very new words. The RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY, SECOND EDITION for example, was published in 1987 and includes words like "space shuttle," "nerd" and AIDS which you won't find in the WEBSTER'S second or third editions because they were published before these words came into use. Another Of these differences in vocabulary is that WEBSTER'S 2nd has words not obsolete before 1500 but, WEBSTER'S THIRD NEW INTERNATIONAL DICTIONARY includes only words in current use.


USAGE NOTES

One of the main uses of dictionaries is as an authority for correct word usage. However, dictionaries do not always agree on a word's proper use, and, in fact, some Of the newer dictionaries (most notably WEBSTER'S THIRD) no longer even try to give notes on usage in "correct" speech. They use a "descriptive" rather than a "prescriptive" approach. That is, they attempt to describe the way words are actually used, rather than how they should be used. WEBSTER'S THIRD and the 7th and 8th editions of WEBSTER'S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARIES, which are based on WEBSTER'S THIRD, use this approach. The RANDOM HOUSE DICTIONARY and WEBSTER'S NEW WORLD DICTIONARY try to strike a balance, giving both indications of current and "proper" usage. Older dictionaries such as FUNK & WAGNALLS and the earlier WEBSTER'S NEW COLLEGIATE DICTIONARIES give prescriptive usage guidelines. Many people still regard WEBSTER'S SECOND as the major authority on proper English.

Because of these differences, you should always let the patron know which dictionary you are using when you answer a question on proper usage.

PRONUNCIATION

Every dictionary has some scheme of marks to indicate pronunciation, but these vary in different editions. For example WEBSTER'S THIRD uses an accent mark before the accented syllable, not after, as is the practice of most other dictionaries. It's a good idea to spend a few minutes studying the systems in the dictionaries you have, so you won't have to figure them out in the middle of answering a patron's question.

Regional variations in pronunciation are often given, sometimes with an indication of the preferred choice. Dictionaries differ in this area, too, so it's wise to know the practice of the ones in your library. Some give several alternate pronunciations for a word, others only a few. The distinctions between "prescriptive" and "descriptive" treatment hold for pronunciation as well; WEBSTER'S THIRD, for example, shows how words are usually pronounced in everyday speech whereas WEBSTER'S SECOND tries to show pronunciation for correct formal platform speech. In some dictionaries, the first pronunciation given is the preferred one, in others the first pronunciation is merely the most common and all are considered equally acceptable. You need to read the introductory material in each volume to be sure how each dictionary handles this.


ETYMOLOGY

Most dictionaries give some indication of the Origin of words. Like pronunciation schemes, these can be tricky to read, so try to become familiar with your own dictionaries.

When words have changed meanings over the years, several definitions may be given. The Merriam-Webster dictionaries always put the most current definition last. Other dictionaries such as RANDOM HOUSE and AMERICAN HERITAGE put the most recent definition first.

Write with the learned, pronounce with the vulgar.

Benjamin Franklin


EXTRA FEATURES

Most dictionaries have several useful features in addition to basic definitions, and some of these can be of great value especially in a small library. Just what each dictionary includes varies a great deal. WEBSTER'S SECOND, for example, is known for its appended tables, charts, maps, etc., most of which were dropped by WEBSTER'S THIRD. The AMERICAN HERITAGE DICTIONARY is noted for its illustrations. RANDOM HOUSE, SECOND has handy dictionaries of Spanish, French, Italian and German.

Many editions include rules of spelling and grammar, and many have special tables included in the body of the work, sometimes, but not always, listed in the table of contents.


THE DICTIONARY AS A FACT FINDING TOOL

The dictionary can often be used to answer many quick fact questions. Definitions can include a surprising amount of information, so don't overlook the dictionary even though you already know the basic meaning of a word.

And, of course, when you are working on a question, use the dictionary to check on unfamiliar terms. For example, if you receive a request for a book on dactylology, look that word up before you look in the library's catalog. You may very well have a book on the subject under a different heading.

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This page was last updated on March 3, 2003.