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This content is taken from the Coventry University, The Alan Turing Institute & Macmillan Education's online course, Understanding English Dictionaries. Join the course to learn more.

What kind of dictionary would be useful when...?

In Week 1, we looked at some different kinds of dictionaries, including:

  • Visual or picture dictionaries
  • School dictionaries
  • Advanced learners’ dictionaries
  • Bilingual and multilingual dictionaries
  • Monolingual general reference dictionaries
  • Dictionaries designed on historical principles
  • Subject-specific dictionaries
  • Special dictionaries, for example, collocation dictionaries or dictionaries of dialect or slang

Do you use different dictionaries for different types of activity?

Some dictionaries are very helpful for one kind of activity, but not for another. For example, in Step 2.12 we watched and heard how Kaihuai used a ‘production’ dictionary, the Longman Language Activator, to find a more unusual word (‘wander’) to replace ‘walk’ in the short story he was writing.

Production dictionaries help learners to find alternatives to the common words they already know. They are useful for writing, and perhaps for speaking, but they are not so useful for receptive activities (listening and reading).

In Step 2.12, we watched and heard how Nur and Jim used dictionaries to help them understand classical works of literature and determine how word meanings have changed. A historical dictionary might be the best choice for this activity. Dictionaries that are not designed on historical principles will not list many archaic words and meanings.

Jim also used dictionaries for translating poetry and Sheena used a dictionary to communicate with people who spoke a language she did not know. Bilingual dictionaries are clearly the best choice for these activities. However, if the entries only give translations (and perhaps examples) they may not provide enough information about grammar and usage to help you with language production.

Your task

What was the last word you remember looking up? Where did you look it up, what were you looking for? Did you find what you were looking for? (If you are a teacher you may prefer to comment on a recent word you were asked about – were you or your student able to get a satisfactory answer?)

Is there a dictionary entry – monolingual or bilingual - that you are not satisfied with? Tell us about it!

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University