by Erin McKean, Senior Editor, "The New Oxford American Dictionary"
A dictionary is like a parachute. You want to be sure that it works before you need it! There are almost as many different dictionaries as there are reasons to use one. How do you find the one that's right for you?
How old is the dictionary? Check out the copyright date. Some dictionaries with a copyright date still may not have the newest words and meanings included. Check for entries such as ADSL, nastygram, viral marketing.
Check out some actual definitions. Are they easy to understand? Flip through the dictionary until you see a guide word (the words at the top of the page) that you don't know. When you read the definition, is it written in plain English? Are there example sentences or phrases that show the word in context? How hard is it to find the meaning want?
Look at the etymologies. Do they show not only the language but the actual foreign or archaic word that the English word came from? Do you trust the information, or does it seem sketchy, fanciful, or farfetched?
Read a few usage notes. Are they preachy and strict, or do they show both standard and informal uses, while warning of truly offensive words?
Sound out a few pronunciations. Are the pronunciations easy to use? Cover up the bold headword and read just the pronunciation. Can you connect the pronunciation to the spelling?
Flip to the back. Do you see the kind of information that turns a plain word book into a helpful fact book, too? Pages with lists of US Presidents, chemical elements, weights and measures, and facts about the fifty states are pages that you'll turn to again and again. You should also find guides to usage and punctuation, and a chart of proofreader's marks.
ERIN MCKEAN is a Senior Editor at Oxford University Press, publishers of "The New Oxford American Dictionary" She holds a BA and a MA in Linguistics from the University of Chicago. She is also the editor of Verbatim: The Language Quarterly, a humorous journal of language and linguistics.