How To Choose An English Dictionary?


Dictionaries are an incredibly useful tool when learning another language but with so many options, how do you know which one to choose? Here are several things to think about when looking for a good dictionary.

  1. Translation dictionaries

These dictionaries offer translations from one language to another, e.g. Spanish to English, English to Chinese, etc. However, the problem is that they have very limited usage and are really only good for looking up the meaning of a specific word or checking the spelling of a word. Many don’t provide examples of how to use the word and often times they ignore subtle differences between words that might translate as the same word.

E.g. Merriam-Webster’s Spanish-English Dictionary’s definition for ‘about’:


  1. Traditional English dictionaries


These are the English dictionaries that are written for native English speakers. These dictionaries can definitely help with the connotations and subtle differences between words; however, they can do this because they often include the etymology of a word and, in the case of the Oxford English Dictionary (the definitive English dictionary), they also include examples of the word’s use throughout time. The older the word, or the more changes it’s undergone, the longer the definition. Even for native speakers this can be largely irrelevant information.

Traditional dictionaries also tend to include definitions for different prefixes and suffixes and long lists of words that can use that prefix or suffix. For example, students occasionally ask me when do you use ir-, il-, un- or non- all of which mean not but are used with different words. A traditional dictionary often lists the words that can be used with each prefix.

E.g. Merriam-Webster’s definition for ‘about’:


E.g. Oxford English Dictionary’s definition for ‘about’:


  1. English learner dictionaries

These are English dictionaries with definitions that were written specifically for English language learners. There are often idiomatic expressions that are included with the definition as well as example sentences to show how the words are used in a context. The definitions often use simple language and a few dictionaries even include pictures as necessary.

These dictionaries will do a better job than a traditional dictionary to show word families, e.g. friend, friendly, friendship, etc., thus making it easier to quickly boost your child’s vocabulary. However, if your child’s level is A1 or A2 consider having both a translation dictionary (to understand the definition) and a learners’ dictionary (to understand the usage).

E.g. Collins COBUILD Student’s Dictionary’s definition for ‘about’:


  1. Online dictionaries

Anywhere, anytime, any word. Why wouldn’t you use an online dictionary? Even if you don’t use a dedicated dictionary website, any translation app will work just as well. Right? Well, there are certainly a lot of benefits to using an online version.

Online versions are updated frequently. If there are any new words that have been added to the dictionary, then the online versions will have it. Despite the fact that they are getting much better they aren’t precise.

One popular online dictionary I’ve encountered in China provided a definition for a word I’d never heard of. Upon further research it turned out that the definition was actually an acronym specific to a particular industry. If you come across an online app or dictionary not mentioned in the examples provided below, please double check the translations with other dictionaries. If it’s a real word, it should have the same or similar definition no matter which dictionary your child uses.

E.g. Merriam-Webster’s Online Dictionary’s definition for ‘about’ (Traditional):


E.g. Oxford English Dictionary for Learners’ definition of ‘about’ (Learner):


  1. Offline/Hardcopy dictionaries

Do you live in a place where electricity and internet access is sporadic? If so, an offline dictionary is more reliable. Do you want a translation dictionary but your language (or dialect) isn’t available as an online dictionary or app? Again, a hardcopy works better here. And finally, do you want the prestige? When friends and family come to visit you and your family do you want them to see that you’re supporting your child’s education? It’s hard to do that with an online dictionary.

  1. Oxford vs Merriam-Webster

The main dictionary publishers.

Oxford is often considered the ‘definitive’ dictionary, but Merriam-Webster is generally better priced. Also, as I mentioned Oxford often includes extensive examples of use over time, origin of the word, etc. which may not be necessary.

The other key factor is generally speaking, Oxford is British English and Merriam-Webster is American. This doesn’t mean that Oxford doesn’t include American definitions in their version or vice versa, but rather that example sentences, pronunciation guides and the main definition will be British for Oxford, American for Merriam-Webster.


Do be careful of dictionaries label American dictionaries. These will feature ONLY American English so words or phrases that aren’t used in the US won’t be included.

Also pay attention to the size and words like Concise or Mini on the cover. While these versions are just fine they are designed to be smaller and are less likely to include rare words. This is fine for general English purposes but if your child wants to read some classic English literature or is studying for a university entrance exam, the Concise or Mini versions may not be sufficient.


Author’s Profile:


Mrs. Tiffany Wingert

Nationality: American

Education:  M.A. in Applied Linguistics for English Language Teaching, University of York, UK.

Tiffany currently works for EF Education First as our Course Content Editor in Shanghai, China. Prior to this job, Tiffany had extensive ESL teaching experience in many countries in the world, including Japan, U.S.A, Samoa and China over the past decade in both online and offline classrooms. She holds a CertTESOL certification from University of Birmingham and a number of other English Learning related certifications to equip herself as a top-level qualified ESL teacher.

She’s an enthusiastic ESL educator and loves working abroad to teach ESL learners with her passion and dedication, meanwhile participating in various ESL voluntary projects in her free time. Tiffany is keen on her career development in ESL and hopes to help all ESL learners and parents find better direction in learning English through her writings and teachings.

Please click Tiffany’s LinkedIn profile to learn more about her!