What to Look for in a Dictionary

Article excerpt

Obviously, not all dictionaries are of equal merit. Given the large number and diversity of titles available, how does a consumer go about deciding which dictionary to buy or use? A simple solution is to ask the advice of a knowledgeable friend, teacher, colleague, or librarian or consult a reference work on the topic.

These approaches will satisfy only casual consumers--those who lack the time or inclination (or both) to develop their own opinions about specific titles. People for whom language plays a central role in their lives and work--writers, teachers, student's, journalists, librarians, researchers, administrative and secretarial personnel, word game enthusiasts, et al.--will want to examine firsthand any dictionary being considered for purchase or extensive use.

How, then, does the interested consumer evaluate a dictionary or related product? The simplest and most effective method is to ask the dictionary questions about words. The more questions you ask, and the more dictionaries you ask them of, the more likely you are to find the best dictionary for you. Serious consumers should use this approach:

* Decide on three or four likely titles in the category of dictionary in which you are interested.

* Develop a list of test (or sample) words to check in each competing dictionary. Although the list need not be extensive, try to choose several terms from a current newspaper or magazine that are new or ambiguous to you (a recent article on volcanoes in Time, for instance, used such technical vocabulary as epicenter, lahars, zooplankton, and silviculturist). Also pick some commonly used words that have entered the language recently, such as stagflation, junk bond, sound bite, hacker (in the computer sense), yuppie, AIDS, crack (as in illegal drugs).

* Go to a local bookstore or library where copies of the dictionaries might be found, and see how each performs. Don't merely look up the words, but carefully read the definitions and ancillary material to determine if the information is clear, current, intelligently presented, etc.

To achieve a full and fair appreciation of the overall quality of any dictionary, consider these 20 points:

1. Does the dictionary provide the level of vocabulary coverage you need? For whom is the dictionary intended? How extensive is its scope? How deep is the vocabulary coverage? Is the dictionary suited to your educational level and linguistic development? Does it meet any particular vocabulary needs or interests you might have? For instance, if you do much business correspondence, your dictionary should provide strong coverage of business terminology, including prominent trade names. This raises another question: Should you choose a general or specialized dictionary? Or perhaps both?

2. Are the dictionary's contents clear and readable? Are the dictionary's definitions and other vocabulary components understandable to you (and others who might also be using the book)? If, for example, you look up the word endorphin and find it defined as "any one of a group of protein substances in the brain that suppress pain and control various physiological responses," do you grasp what is being said or are you still wondering what the term means? In similar fashion, are illustrative examples, usage notes, synonym studies, and pronunciation symbols presented with clarity? Is dictionary "shorthand" (signs, symbols, abbreviations, etc.) kept to a minimum? Are abbreviations and other notations used in the dictionary easy to comprehend? Dictionaries may be "masterpieces of condensation," but only if the abbreviated matter is completely clear to the user.

3. Is the dictionary produced by reputable people? People, not machines, make dictionaries. Who are they? What are the credentials of the lexicographers, editors, and consultants? Such information customarily appears in the book's introductory material. If it doesn't, the dictionary is of questionable authority. …