John Larrysson Column: How to choose a dictionary

There are three main types of dictionaries, children's, standard and speciality.


Children need lots of pictures that show them the word. Before buying, check a children's dictionary for words they are likely to use, such as teacher, toilet, book, hot, cold, paint, pencil, left hand vs. right hand, face, wash, bath, apple, potato, car and so on. Other words that are useful include some words with the difficult to learn th sound.

Words should match the standard sound for that letter. Photo should not be an example of a p sound, it makes an f sound. Knife should not be an example of a k sound. Check the letter x. They should give examples of words that end with x, like box. Xylophone begins with a z sound not an x sound. Photo, knife and xylophone can be included, but not as the example of a letter's sound.

Other useful things to have are a place for the child to write down their name, phone number and home or school address. Have them write it in English. Places where a child can draw or write some words they have learned are helpful.

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Starting in secondary school, students need a good standard adult's dictionary of about 50,000 words and know how to use it. It is often useful to have both a good paper dictionary and an electronic or online dictionary.

Here are some things to check for.

Chinese translations are useful, but don't depend on them; translations are not always exact.

You want both British and US spellings: organize (US and UK), organise (UK only). If a dictionary suggests that the British only use organise or that it is the only correct spelling, don't buy it.

There should be a good pronunciation guide. The IPA is the standard. Online and electronic dictionaries often have a sound file for you. If there is no pronunciation guide it is a glossary and not a real dictionary! Also you don't need to memorize the IPA, just be able to use it! Check it in the guide the dictionary provides, even if you have to glue a copy of the IPA over the title page. Look up tomato and make sure it provides both UK and US pronunciations.

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Look up some words to test a dictionary you are thinking of buying. Check some idioms, or phrases that act like different words. Throw up does not mean to throw something upwards. Check how many meanings and idioms are given for the word hot; there should be about twenty. Look up some abbreviations like Hz, i.e. and Feb to see if they have them. Look up court martial, the plural should be courts martial not court martials. The word litre (UK) (liter - US) should not be capitalized.

Look up rubber and eraser. It should explain that these are the British and American words for the same thing. It should also explain the other meaning of rubber; girls should use the word eraser when talking to boys to avoid misunderstandings.

Look up some naughty words. You should be old enough to avoid using them, but being able to check what people say is useful.

Standard dictionaries often have an appendix at the end with useful guides. Check to see if they look helpful to you. Common appendixes include: labelled diagrams, calendars, irregular verbs, maps, the periodic table, Roman numbers, ordinal & cardinal numbers, fractions, metric units, country names and adjectives.

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Speciality Dictionaries

The English language has about a million words. Standard dictionaries don't cover all the less common words used in different subjects. This is why senior secondary school students, university students and adults need speciality dictionaries for their jobs or studies. These dictionaries will only include special words from one subject. These include professions (chemistry, business...), foreign languages (French, Japanese...) and language varieties (Hong Kong English, Indian English). Look up words from your subject and see if a dictionary has them and how clearly the words are explained.

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by John Larrysson

[email protected]

A native English speaker who has been teaching practical English in Hong Kong for more than a decade.