Dictionaries are essential reference sources in all libraries. Types include general language dictionaries, subject dictionaries that cover the terms of a particular field, special purpose dictionaries that focus on a type of word such as slang, and synonym dictionaries and thesauri that aid in finding the word which best expresses an idea or concept.

Although electronic dictionaries have been available for some time now, there is no indication that they will soon replace the print versions. College or desk dictionaries in print, the most common type, are still easier to use, easier to read, and more convenient to reach than their electronic equivalents. Word processing programs have included dictionaries for a number of years, making them useful for checking spelling. More sophisticated systems also supply definitions and synonyms, and identify grammatical errors. Some electronic reference sources, such as encyclopedias, also have dictionary features built into them. When the reader encounters a new word in the text, a simple command enables the user to learn the word’s meaning, and in some instances, hear it pronounced. In many cases specific dictionaries are available online either directly or through a service. There also are Internet sites such as one listed below which have links to features such as translations of words in foreign languages.

General Language Dictionaries

Dictionaries considered unabridged include over 265,000 entries; desk or collegiate dictionaries contain from 139,000 to 180,000 entries. There also are abridged or paperback dictionaries that include fewer entries and less information. Although highly portable, abridged dictionaries have questionable value for anything more than checking spelling or pronunciation. The desk or collegiate dictionary, the most popular and commonly used type, is generally adequate for most user needs.

Since the language is always evolving with newly coined words being added and older words taking on new or changed meanings, current dictionaries are essential library holdings. Libraries should purchase each new edition of standard works such as those listed below. Authority is important in selecting a dictionary as it is with other types of reference works. We look to a limited number of reputable dictionary publishers, such as Merriam-Webster, Simon & Schuster, Random House, Oxford University Press, Doubleday, and John Wiley. It should be noted that the term “Webster” in itself does not assure quality. The name is not copyrighted and can be used in the title of any dictionary regardless of quality.

The basic purpose of general language dictionaries is to record the words of the language and to set authoritative standards for spelling, meaning, and usage. There are, however, two philosophies, termed “prescriptive” or “descriptive,” that differ in their approach. In the former instance, the dictionary characterizes certain words by labeling them with terms such as archaic, obsolete, dialectic, provincial, colloquial, vulgar, and slang, thus determining a standard for speech and written language. The “descriptive” approach sets out to record what is used, not to determine what is acceptable usage of the language.

There are two mistaken ideas in dictionary usage. Most users assume that when there are two or more pronunciations offered for a word, the first is preferable. This, however, is not the case; either pronunciation is acceptable. Many users also assume that definitions are in order by frequency of usage, the most common first. In some instances that is true, but in many dictionaries definitions are in historical order with the oldest first.

Unabridged Dictionaries

D1. Random House Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary. 2nd rev. ed. Random House, 1997. (6)

This dictionary emphasizes words in current use. Approximately 315,000 entries include biographical and geographical names, foreign words and phrases, abbreviations, popular proverbs and mottoes, and titles of major literary, musical, and artistic works, along with words in general usage. Definitions are arranged according to their frequency of use, the most common usage first. The work applies restrictive labels such as “vulgar,” “slang,” “informal,” “unacceptable” and “offensive” when appropriate to do so, making it a prescriptive-type dictionary. Illustrative phrases, synonyms and antonyms, and pictorial illustrations also are included.

Note: Webster’s Third New International Dictionary of the English Language (Philip Gove, ed. 2000 [10]) is the largest and most prestigious dictionary published in the United States. It, however, has not been completely revised since 1961. In newer printings it is updated by addenda pages on which new words or definitions are treated. Random House, described above, will meet the needs of most public library patrons.

Desk or Collegiate Dictionaries

D2. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 10th ed. Merriam-Webster, 2000. 1,159p. (2)

Emphasis in this excellent dictionary is on contemporary pronunciations, definitions, and usage. The more than 160,000 entries list all definitions in historical order (oldest first). A dating system that indicates the first use of a word and each additional meaning, introduced in the previous edition, has been continued. Separate sections in the back present information not included in the main alphabet: abbreviations and symbols for chemical elements, foreign words and phrases, biographical names, geographical names, signs and symbols, and a handbook of style. This dictionary, like the one below (Webster’s New World), is a must for all libraries. American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th ed. (Houghton Mifflin, 2000. 2,140p. [6]) is another quality desk-type dictionary. Its Internet version is available at www.bartleby.com/.

D3. OneLook Dictionaries. (http://onelook.com)

Links to some 15 or more dictionary sites define words and phrases and translate foreign language words into English.

D4. Webster’s New World College Dictionary. 4th college ed. John Wiley, 1999. (2)

This excellent dictionary focuses on current written and spoken English. The 163,000 entries include people as well as legendary, biblical, and classical names, places, foreign words and phrases, slang and colloquial words, and abbreviations. Definitions, arranged in historical order (oldest first), are precise and readable. Americanisms are marked with a star. Restrictive labels, such as “slang” and “vulgar” are applied to nonstandard words and usage.

D5. yourDictionary.com. (www.yourDictionary.com)

This source provides easy access to definitions, synonyms, and antonyms. Entries provide pronunciations, function (part of speech), etymology, date, and definitions. There are several special features such as glossaries of special fields, abbreviations, a listing of the 100 most often mispronounced words and the 100 most often misspelled words.

Synonyms and Antonyms

Next in popularity to the general language dictionary are the synonym/antonym dictionaries, generally called thesauri, a term meaning storehouse or treasury of words. During the 19th century, Peter Mark Roget, a physician in an English mental asylum, devised the system still in use today. He set out to classify all human thought under a series of verbal categories, by which the original Roget’s Thesaurus was arranged. This arrangement requires use of the index in order to find the appropriate classification. Since synonyms or related words are simply listed without any guidance in proper use, a clear understanding of the language is needed in order to properly use the traditional Roget. The user who is not well grounded in the language may select a word that sounds acceptable but does not express what is meant.

Some updated versions of Roget’s work are in alphabetical order, arranged by concept, with illustrative phrases and sentences. Both types of thesauri should be available to the user since preferences vary. It also should be noted that the name Roget is not copyrighted and is used in the titles of some dozen or more currently published works. The two thesauri listed below, one in the traditional classified arrangement and one in alphabetical sequence with illustrative sentences, are first choices.

D6. Random House Roget’s College Thesaurus. Rev. and updated. Random House, 2000. 832p. (2)

12,000 alphabetically arranged entries provide some 400,000 synonyms and antonyms. A sample sentence is provided for each word’s various meanings. All levels of the language, formal to slang, are included. Webster’s New World Thesaurus by Charlton Grant Laird, edited by Michael Agnes (John Wiley, 1999. 894p. [2]), and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Thesaurus (Merriam-Webster, 1994. 894p. [2]), both alphabetically arranged and based on Roget, also are recommended.

D7. Roget’s International Thesaurus. 6th ed. Robert L. Chapman. HarperInformation, 2001. (2)

This traditional thesaurus arranges over 325,000 synonyms, antonyms, and related words and phrases into 1,070 different categories. Slang and commonly used foreign terns also are included. Within each section, headed by a keyword, are listed the words and phrases from which the user may select the proper synonym or antonym. The index, which makes up over half of the book, is essential to finding a specific word or concept.

Slang and Idioms

Most general language dictionaries today contain well known slang and idiomatic expressions, but these are few when compared to the huge number used in various segments of today’s society. Even those words or phrases included in the general dictionary are not provided with their histories. Readers need a place where they can learn meanings or satisfy their curiosity or interest in the language. Since slang and idioms are closely related, both of the works below are recommended as basic reference tools for the area.

D8. American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms. Christine Ammer. Houghton Mifflin, 1997. 736p. (3)

Native speakers generally understand the meaning of such phrases as “keep your eyes pealed,” “bird in the hand,” or “every nook and cranny, ” but the expressions can be puzzling to the person new to the culture. Even the native speaker may find it interesting to known that the expression “moment of truth” is of bullfighting origin and was popularized by Ernest Hemingway. This dictionary defines over 10,000 figures of speech, slang phrases, clichés, colloquialisms, and proverbs. For each entry there is a history of the expression along with a sample sentence showing its use. Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, listed in the Literature section that follows, also is useful for defining idiomatic expressions.

D9. Dictionary of American Slang. Robert Chapman, 3rd ed. HarperCollins, 1998. 624p. (4)

This work covers 19,000 slang words and expressions for all periods, over 2,000 new to this edition. Some are standard expressions used and understood by most everyone, some are colloquial or dialect, others are used and understood only by members of a specific occupation, trade, profession, sect, age, or interest group. Entries provide pronunciation, appropriate classification and dating labels, definition, illustrative phrase, and numerous cross-references. The appendix includes numerous word lists such as blend words (Dixiecrat), group names (Aussie), children’s bathroom words, and synonyms for drunk (over 300). Like others of its kind, the work contains unacceptable, taboo, or vulgar words, many of which are not found in standard dictionaries. Other recommended reference works for these areas include: NTC’s Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions, 3rd ed. (McGraw-Hill, 2000. 576p. [2, 1pa.]); and Cassell’s Dictionary of Slang by Jonathan Green. (Sterling, 2000. [2pa])

Sign Language

D10. A Basic Dictionary of ASL Terms.


The site provides a few basic terms in American Sign Language to help those who are trying to communicate with persons who sign. There are both animated and text definitions and sign images.

D11. Random House Webster’s American Sign Language. Elaine Costello. Random House, 2002. 992p. (5, 2pa)

Utilizing the American Sign Language (ASL) system, this work includes over 4,500 words and signs. For each entry there is a definition followed by a sample sentence. There also are drawings of a person using the sign and written instructions on how it is formed. There are cross-references as well as “same sign used for” entries. There is a section on finger spelling, colors, and numbers. American Sign Language Dictionary, rev. ed., Martin L. Sternberg. (HarperCollins, 1994. [2]) also is a useful sign language dictionary.

Usage and Style Manuals

Students preparing papers and others who need guidance in English usage or bibliographic form require the types of sources described below. Usage manuals are prescriptive in that they offer right and wrong ways of using the language. Style manuals offer bibliographic form as well as guidance at all levels of researching and writing formal papers from choosing a topic to completing the task. Since there are variations in bibliographic form, it is wise to consult local school and academic librarians to determine which are preferred in the area. In many school settings, a manual is selected and its usage required in writing assignments.

Language Usage

D12. A Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Bryan A. Garner. Oxford, 2000. 752p. (4)

This excellent work is the American version of Fowler’s Modern English Usage, a classic British work. In an alphabetical arrangement, Garner treats basic usage and advanced nuances, tackles common confusions (e.g., assure, insure, and ensure), explains differences in meaning (e.g., ability and capacity), provides pronunciation for words often disputed or varied, and clarifies many “dos” and “don’ts” of the language. The dictionary is scholarly yet readable, written in a witty, lively style.

D13. The Elements of Style. 4th ed. William Strunk, Jr., E.B. White, Charles Osgood, Roger Angell. Allym & Bacon, 2000. 105p. (1)

William Strunk prepared the original handbook for his English composition classes at Cornell University, and in 1952, long after his death, E.B. White, a grateful student who became a famous essayist and children’s writer (Charlotte’s Web), edited the small volume for publication. It was so well received that White revised and updated it in 1972 and 1979. Now in its 4th edition, prepared by two well-known writers, the work remains a classic that clearly and succinctly explains the rules of good usage, often with a touch of humor. Correct and incorrect examples illustrate each case.

Note: Two other recommended guides are: Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (Merriam-Webster, 1993. 992p. [2]), and The Penguin Dictionary of American English Usage and Style by Paul W. Lovinger (Penguin USA, 2002. 491p. [2pa]).

D14. Guide to Grammar and Style. Jack Lynch. (http://newark.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing)

The site offers a miscellany of grammar rules plus usage and style notes with clear explanations and examples. There also are links to style, rhetoric, grammar, and other language sites. This site, offered by a faculty member at Rutgers University, appears to offer a great deal of help to the student striving to produce quality writing.

Style Manuals

D15. A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Theses and Dissertations. 6th ed. Kate L. Turabian, John Grossman, and Alice Bennett, eds. University of Chicago Press, 1966. 300p. (3, 1pa)

This well-known handbook, often cited as Turabian (the original editor, now deceased), is based on the Chicago Manual of Style and is directed toward the student and others inexperienced in writing formal papers. The work includes the rules of grammar, punctuation, spacing, abbreviations, capitalization, using quotations, and steps in writing a paper such as making a working outline, preparing a bibliography, and making footnotes.

D16. MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers. 5th ed. Joseph Gibaldi. Modern Language Association of America, 1999. 300p. (2pa.)

A standard for over 25 years, this style manual guides the user through the research paper process from narrowing the topic, making an outline, taking notes, making footnotes and bibliographies, and writing the text. The mechanics of writing are thoroughly covered. A basic guide to bibliographic form, following practices used in the MLAHandbook can be found on the Internet at http://webster.commnet.edu/mla/index.shtml.

Abbreviations and Acronyms

Since abbreviations and acronyms are subject to frequent additions and changes, the purchase of print sources, which are relatively expensive, seems unwarranted. There are numerous sites on the Internet both for general and specific field abbreviations.

D17. Acronym Finder. (www.acronymfinder.com)

This site identifies some 224,000 general acronyms, abbreviations, and initialisms either by entering the abbreviation for identification or for finding the abbreviation for an identity.

Foreign Languages

Selection of foreign language dictionaries should be based on need. Most small communities in Texas will need a Spanish/English dictionary, but as populations become more diverse, dictionaries representing other languages may be needed as well. The leading publishers of foreign language dictionaries include Harper-Collins, Larousse-Kingfisher-Chambers, and Oxford University Press, which publish dictionaries in major foreign languages as well as others. A word and phrase dictionary, such as the one listed below, can be very useful.

D18. Oxford Dictionary of Foreign Words and Phrases. Jennifer Speaker Oxford, 2000. 528p. (3, 1pa)

This inexpensive work translates words and phrases regularly encountered today. Some 8,000 entries, covering 40 languages, provide pronunciation, part of speech, variant spellings, date, language of origin, and exhaustive definitions. Changes in meaning also are traced. Your Dictionary.com (www.yourdictionary.com), listed above, provides translations of words and phrases from 280 languages.

Price Guide: (1) Under $15 (2) $16-$25 (3) $26-$35 (4) $36-$45 (5) $46-$55

(6) $56-$65 (7) $66-$75 (8) $76-$85 (9) $86-$95 (10) Over $96

Page last modified: March 2, 2011