Skip main navigation

Does size matter?

A consideration of the proportion of existing English words that are actually recorded in dictionaries.
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0

Do you think that if a word exists in English it will be recorded in a dictionary?

Many people do think this, and dictionaries are often consulted to prove that a word is or isn’t a ‘real’ word. We also rely on dictionary evidence to decide whether a word is acceptable in word games such as Scrabble™, or TV game shows such as the British show Countdown.

However, when you think about it, just because a word isn’t recorded in a dictionary does not mean that it is not in use, by some people, somewhere. New words (neologisms) are being invented all the time to meet the needs of different groups of people all over the world. New meanings are also created for existing words, and words are ‘borrowed’ from other languages into English. Because of this, recording and defining every single word and meaning currently in the English language is an impossible task. The large Oxford and Merriam-Webster dictionaries, discussed in Week 1 (Step 1.15), try to keep track of as many words and meanings as they can, but there are lots of technical terms and regional or dialect words that they do not include.

The number and type of entries in a dictionary very much depend on who the dictionary is for. Very proficient users of English already know the meanings and spellings of more common words, so they are more likely to look up rare words. Children and learners of English need longer explanations about grammar and usage, and are more likely to look up common words that they often encounter and will want to use in their own speech and writing. People who are interested in the history of the English language look up old-fashioned and obsolete words, as well as words that are in current use.

When you read publishers’ descriptions of their dictionaries, bear in mind that they vary in the way they calculate size. They might only count the number of full entries, or include sub-entries for different meanings of the same headword. They might also count derived forms which are listed but not defined. This makes it virtually impossible to compare the coverage of dictionaries produced by different publishers.

Your task

Do you think people generally believe that the bigger a dictionary is, the better?
Does size matter to you when you choose a dictionary?
In the list below are what publishers have to say about the size of their dictionaries in late 2018.
What factors do you think account for the differences in these descriptions?
Click on the links for more information about the dictionaries.
  • … together with its 1993 Addenda Section, includes some 470,000 entries
  • … over 3,000 entries
  • In-depth treatment of over 22,000 words, phrases and meanings
  • … over 45,000 headwords, phrases and phrasal verbs
  • 230,000 words, phrases & meanings
© Coventry University. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Understanding English Dictionaries

Created by
FutureLearn - Learning For Life

Our purpose is to transform access to education.

We offer a diverse selection of courses from leading universities and cultural institutions from around the world. These are delivered one step at a time, and are accessible on mobile, tablet and desktop, so you can fit learning around your life.

We believe learning should be an enjoyable, social experience, so our courses offer the opportunity to discuss what you’re learning with others as you go, helping you make fresh discoveries and form new ideas.
You can unlock new opportunities with unlimited access to hundreds of online short courses for a year by subscribing to our Unlimited package. Build your knowledge with top universities and organisations.

Learn more about how FutureLearn is transforming access to education