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Comparative review of dictionaries for English learners

by Tomasz P. Szynalski

Introduction

Few teachers will explain a word to you like a good learner’s dictionary. A dictionary can give you a clear definition, comprehensive information on pronunciation, and — most importantly — carefully chosen examples that show you how to use the word.

Which dictionaries are best for serious English learners in 2009? Certainly we should be thinking of digital dictionaries. In an age of ubiquitous laptops and netbooks, book dictionaries are clearly a thing of the past — quaint relics used exclusively by elderly ladies who go by the title of “Senior English Instructor”. Their sheer weight (the dictionaries’, not the elderly ladies’) and the time it takes to look up a word mean that there is absolutely no reason for a serious English learner to use one.

What about online dictionaries? They’re free, there’s a lot of them, and the growing availability of wireless Internet connections makes them more and more accessible. Might they be a viable option? Let’s see:

  • Publishers make money on books and CDs, so their online dictionaries are always limited in some way. Typical limitations are: lack of recorded pronunciations (Longman, Oxford, Cambridge), missing phonetic transcriptions (Longman), smaller number of example sentences (Longman).
  • A Web dictionary is slower to use than a dictionary that’s installed on your computer. It’s not just about the page loading time and server problems; often, the interface requires more looking around and clicking. When you look up dozens of words every day (and you should), it can really hurt your motivation if your dictionary slows you down.

Therefore, my opinion is that Web dictionaries are a useful resource when you want to get some extra information about a word (e.g. get some more examples, double-check the pronunciation), but for serious everyday work, you can’t beat a software dictionary. It just makes no sense to slow your progress in order to save $30.

That is why this review will focus on the currently available English dictionaries for advanced learners available on CD/DVD.

collage of screenshots from all the tested dictionaries

The dictionaries

  • Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (3rd edition, 2008)
  • Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary (5th edition, 2006)
  • Collins COBUILD Advanced Dictionary (6th edition, 2009)
  • Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) (5th edition, 2009)
  • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (OALD) (7th edition, 2005)

I was wondering whether I should include the 5th edition of the Collins COBUILD Dictionary in this review. In the end I decided to do so, because it is much better than the current edition and it is still available in at least one online store (and will most likely continue to be available until the end of 2009).

Review criteria

I looked at the following features in all the dictionaries:

  • Number and quality of example sentences. I believe example sentences are the most important feature of a dictionary. Looking at example sentences is the fastest way to figure out the answers to three critical questions: (1) What does this word mean? (2) In what situations do native speakers use this word? (3) What words and grammatical patterns typically appear with this word? Examples also give you ready-made phrases that you can “steal” and use in your own sentences.
  • Number and quality of definitions. In a learner’s dictionary, definitions should tell the learner about the most common situations and contexts in which a word is used. If 90% of the sentences with the verb wag are about tails, the definition should mention tails, even if sometimes the word is used in other ways. Such a definition is easier to understand and more useful than a more general, abstract one.
  • Accuracy and completeness of phonetic transcriptions. Dictionaries should list all the common pronunciations of a word in both British English (RP) and American English (General American).
  • Coverage of American English. A learner’s dictionary should give accurate and complete information on American pronunciations, American words, and differences between British and American usage.
  • Quality and coverage of recordings. Audio recordings should sound clear (no technical defects). It should be indicated which transcription is pronounced and the recording should match this transcription. Ideally, there should be a recording for each British and American transcription, as well as for word forms (-s, -ed, etc.)
  • Additional content, such as pronunciation exercises, synonyms, usage information, pictures, etc.
  • User friendliness. The software should enable the user to perform all the common tasks (looking up a word, playing a recording, etc.) easily and without unnecessary clicking. It should offer all the expected features (like copy & paste) and should support all the expected input operations (standard keys, drag-and-drop, scrolling with the mouse wheel).
  • Responsiveness. The software should do its job without annoying delays.
  • Search engine. (Technically, searching is part of “User friendliness”, but it is so important in a dictionary that it deserves its own category.) If a word has many spellings (e.g. hard-pressed/hard pressed), it shouldn’t matter which one you search for. It shouldn’t matter if you type “between a rock and a hard place”, “caught between a rock and a hard place”, “hard place” or “rock” — the phrase you’re looking for should always be returned in the search results.
  • Layout. Definitions, phonetic transcriptions and example sentences should be laid out in a clean and readable way. The user should not feel overwhelmed by interface elements.
  • Price.

Testing methodology

part of the Excel sheet I used to evaluate the examples and definitions
Part of the Excel sheet I used to evaluate the examples and definitions

Example sentences and definitions

In order to evaluate the quality of examples and definitions in all the dictionaries more objectively, I simulated the way an English learner uses a dictionary in real life:

  1. I made a list of 15 real sources of written and spoken English content: BBC News (news website), Wikipedia, HowStuffWorks (education/technology site), Anandtech (computer hardware site), Reddit, RogerEbert.com (movie reviews), Juno (a movie), Desperate Housewives (TV series), Top Gear (TV show about cars), YouTube, Philip Greenspun’s Weblog, The Online Photographer (photography blog), Coding Horror (programming blog), Why We Get Sick (a pop-science book), The Graduate (a novel).
  2. I spent 5 minutes reading or watching each source, writing down every English word or phrase that would be interesting to an English learner. In 75 minutes, I managed to write down about 290 words/phrases like sales breakdown, facade or turn up somewhere.
  3. I whittled down the list to 97 words (1/3 of the original list). I made sure to leave words that were useful for building one’s own sentences (words that I would want to add to my SRS collection).
  4. I looked up each word/phrase in each of the dictionaries, taking note of the following:
    1. The number of example sentences in the entry. (Sometimes there was a short example phrase instead of a full sentence. I counted these phrases as 1/2 or 1/3 of a sentence.)
    2. The number of additional examples in a separate section called “Wordbank”, “Extra Examples” or similar.
    3. The quality of the definition on a scale from 0 (no definition in the dictionary) to 3 (very good definition).

Sometimes a dictionary would give a great number of example sentences for a word that doesn’t need a lot of examples. For example, you don’t need more than 4 examples to learn to use phrases like sore throat or angst-filled lyrics. These relatively useless examples would add to the total number of example sentences in my test, making the dictionary seem better than it really is. To avoid this effect, for each word, I set a limit (between 4 and 7) on the number of example sentences that I would count. If a dictionary had more examples than the limit, I did not count the extra examples.

Phonetic transcriptions

I checked the dictionaries against a list of 38 specific issues, for example:

  • Does the dictionary give two pronunciations of ‘employee’ or only one?
  • Does the dictionary show both the British and American pronunciation of ‘new’?
  • Does the dictionary list all the weak (unstressed) forms of the word ‘him’?

Coverage of American English

Here, I used a list of 50 questions (38 phonetic, 12 vocabulary/usage), such as:

  • Does the dictionary correctly list ‘gotten’ as the American past participle of ‘get’?
  • Does the dictionary list the American pronunciation of ‘hover’?
  • Does the dictionary list the American pronunciation of ‘buffet’?
  • Does the dictionary list the structure “to write somebody” and identify it as an Americanism?

Recordings

I looked up 18 “tricky” words (words with a difficult pronunciation or with many possible pronunciations). I checked the following things:

  • Does the dictionary show which transcription is pronounced in the recording? If so, does the recording match this transcription?
  • Does the speaker pronounce the word clearly?
  • Is the technical quality good (no noise, no compression artifacts)?
  • Are there additional recordings for word forms (-s, -ed) or for example sentences?

I evaluated British and American recordings separately.

Grading system

  • A — excellent
  • B — good
  • C — average
  • D — poor
  • F — failure

The comparison

  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
CONTENT
Example sentences
B-
  • 205 sentences for 97 words (including 147 in main entry)
  • to get extra examples, click on the “More examples” button available for certain words
  • the extra sentences have been chosen by the editors
B+
  • 301 sentences for 97 words (including 121 in main entry)
  • to get extra examples, click on the Wordbank button; this will display a long list of sentences from real-life sources
  • the extra sentences have not been filtered by the editors, so many of them are not very helpful (only the helpful ones have been counted in this test)
A-
  • 289 sentences for 97 words (including 158 in main entry)
  • to get extra examples, you click two separate links “Other dictionary examples” and “Examples from the corpus”; both display a window with sentences
  • the extra sentences have been chosen by the editors
B-
  • 182 sentences for 97 words (including 150 in main entry)
  • extra examples are displayed in a small box (you can make it bigger)
  • the extra sentences have been chosen by the editors
C
  • 121 sentences for 97 words (including 121 in main entry)
  • no extra examples
Definitions
B
  • 208 points
B+
  • 219 points
A-
  • 230 points
B+
  • 219 points
B+
  • 219 points
Phonetic transcriptions
C
  • common pro­nun­ci­ations missing for 9/38 words, esp. for AmE
  • doesn’t show the possibility of pronouncing either ɪ or ə in words like possible, visit
C-
  • common pro­nun­ci­ations missing for 8/38 words, e.g. /ʃɔ:/ for sure
  • some misleading transcriptions, e.g. advanced = æd... instead of əd..., awful = ...fʊl instead of ...fəl
A-
  • does not use syllabic l and n symbols
  • common pro­nun­ci­ations missing for 4/38 words
B
  • for words which have many AmE and BrE pro­nun­ci­ations, transcriptions are presented in a very confusing way
  • does not use syllabic l and n symbols
  • common pro­nun­ci­ations missing for 5/38 words
F
  • no phonetic transcriptions
Coverage of American English
D
  • poor AmE pro­nun­ci­ation information (15/38 missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ations in my test)
  • good information on AmE usage (10.5/12 points)
C-
  • some missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ation information (6/38 missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ations)
  • some missing or incorrect information on AmE usage (7/12 points)
B
  • good information on AmE pro­nun­ci­ation (4/38 missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ations)
  • good information on AmE usage (11/12 points)
C+
  • some missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ation information (7/38 missing AmE pro­nun­ci­ations)
  • good information on AmE usage (10/12 points)
F
  • no AmE pro­nun­ci­ation information
  • some missing or incorrect information on AmE usage (7/12 points)
  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
Recordings (British / American)
B-/B-
  • does not specify which transcription is pronounced in the recording
  • recording sometimes does not match the transcription; sometimes it matches the 2nd or 3rd transcription
  • good technical quality
A-/F
  • for words with several British pro­nun­ci­ations, has separate recordings for each pro­nun­ci­ation
  • recording sometimes does not match the transcription
  • very good technical quality
  • almost no AmE recordings
  • has recordings of word forms, e.g. look, looked, looks
A-/A-
  • does not specify which transcription is pronounced in the recording
  • recording sometimes does not match the transcription; sometimes it matches the 2nd or 3rd transcription
  • very good technical quality
  • has recordings of all example sentences in very good quality
B+/C
  • for words with several British pro­nun­ci­ations, has separate recordings for each pro­nun­ci­ation
  • recording sometimes does not match the transcription for AmE, but for BrE the accuracy is excellent
  • good technical quality for BrE, poor for AmE (lots of noise)
C/F
  • about 1/3 of the recordings are of terrible quality; 2/3 are good or very good
  • no American recordings
  • has recordings of word forms, e.g. look, looked, looks
Additional content
B-
  • Smart Thesaurus shows related words, e.g. boost, reform, benefit, etc.
  • record your own pro­nun­ci­ation and compare it to the dictionary pro­nun­ci­ation
  • collocations for frequent words
  • study pages with useful phrases for conversation, writing essays, etc.
  • pictures
D
  • record your own pro­nun­ci­ation and compare it to the dictionary pro­nun­ci­ation
A
  • high-quality recordings of all the example sentences (usually in BrE, sometimes in AmE)
  • includes 9,000 cultural entries like Darth Vader and Turin Shroud
  • very nice “Thesaurus” and “Collocations” boxes for some words, with extra examples
  • Language Activator: a very nice learner’s thesaurus with explanations and examples
  • record your own pro­nun­ci­ation and compare it to the dictionary pro­nun­ci­ation (you can also do this with the recorded examples)
  • pictures
  • sound effects for a few entries (e.g. applause is illustrated with a recording of applause)
  • grammar section
  • information on word origin (etymology)
B
  • includes 10,000 cultural entries like Darth Vader and J K Rowling
  • Wordfinder: a learner’s thesaurus with explanations and examples
  • record your own pro­nun­ci­ation and compare it to the dictionary pro­nun­ci­ation
  • pictures
  • information on word origin (etymology)
D
  • record your own pro­nun­ci­ation and compare it to the dictionary pro­nun­ci­ation
  • grammar section
  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
SOFTWARE
User friendliness
C+
  • searching: you have to click on the search box before you can type a word
  • scrolling: you have to click on the entry before you can start scrolling down
  • copying selected text: Ctrl+C, “Copy” button, drag-and-drop; no right-click menu on selection
  • can copy & paste transcriptions to other applications (they follow the Unicode standard)
  • Copy button too small, displays an annoying menu where you have to choose between “Copy current selection” and “Copy entry”
  • mousewheel is completely useless — when you try to scroll, it jumps ahead several entries; you have to use the down arrow key
  • you cannot scroll with the trackpad on your laptop
  • cannot shrink the window properly (the minimum width is 800 pixels); see “Layout”
  • “Copy entry” is sometimes confusing; it does not always copy the highlighted entry
B
  • searching: just start typing — don’t need to click on the search box
  • scrolling: you have to click on the entry before you can start scrolling down
  • copying selected text: Ctrl+C, “Copy” button; no right-click menu on selection, no drag-and-drop
  • cannot copy transcriptions (cannot select them at all)
  • mousewheel scrolling works (yay!)
  • you cannot scroll with the trackpad on your laptop
  • window has no title bar, so you can’t tell if it is active by looking at it (you may try to copy or scroll, but it won’t work if the window is not active)
  • cannot shrink the window properly (the minimum width is 800 pixels); see “Layout”
C
  • to make it run without the DVD in the drive, you have to install a patch from Longman.
  • displays useless welcome screen, so you have to click “Dictionary” before you can look up a word
  • searching: just start typing — don’t need to click on the search box (works most of the time)
  • scrolling: you can scroll (but only with down/up arrows!) right after you press Enter to look up a word
  • copying selected text: only drag-and-drop; no Ctrl+C, no right-click menu on selection
  • mousewheel is completely useless — when you try to scroll, it jumps ahead several entries; to scroll, you have to use the arrow keys
  • you cannot scroll with the trackpad on your laptop
  • can copy & paste transcriptions to other applications (they follow the Unicode standard)
  • scrolling with PgUp/PgDn sometimes works, sometimes doesn’t
  • cannot shrink the window properly (the minimum width is about 1000 pixels); see “Layout”
  • too many options (3 separate thesauruses, 2 sets of extra examples, 3 types of collocations) — it’s all quite overwhelming and could be made simpler
  • see also this blog post, which explains why LDOCE is so irrirating
D
  • to make it work with QuickTime 7 or higher, you need to install a patch from Oxford (note: there are two patches, you need the one for QuickTime)
  • searching: you have to click on the search box and delete the previously typed word
  • scrolling: you have to click on the entry before you can start scrolling down
  • copying selected text: Ctrl+C, drag-and-drop, “Copy” button; no right-click menu on selection
  • mousewheel is completely useless — when you try to scroll, it jumps ahead several entries; to scroll, you have to use the arrow keys
  • you cannot scroll with the trackpad on your laptop
  • cannot shrink the window properly (the minimum width is 755 pixels); see “Layout”
  • cannot copy transcriptions to other applications (they are not in Unicode)
F
  • searching: if you do any scrolling or copying, and then you want to look up another word, you have to click on the search box and delete the previously typed word
  • scrolling: you have to click on the scrollbar; you cannot scroll with the keyboard or the mousewheel
  • copying selected text: only Ctrl+C; no drag-and drop, no “Copy” button, no right-click menu
  • you cannot scroll with the trackpad on your laptop
  • cannot resize the window at all (the dimensions are always 760 x 450 pixels); there is a reduced-size mode, but it’s too small and cannot be resized
  • occasional unexpected behavior due to bugs
  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
Responsiveness
A-
  • startup time: 1-3 s
  • generally fast; scrolling sometimes feels a bit slow
A
  • startup time: 1-3 s
  • feels very fast
C-
  • startup time: 7-17 s (patched version)
  • satisfactory speed; scrolling feels slow sometimes
C+
  • startup time: 2-6 s
  • satisfactory speed; scrolling and audio playback feel slow sometimes
F
  • startup time: 9-13 s
  • searching, scrolling and playback are all painfully slow; it feels like something is wrong with your computer
  • there are even delays between keypresses when you’re typing a word in the search box
Search engine
A-
  • finds nearly everything you throw at it: phrasal verbs (e.g. be looking to do sth/looking to do sth), phrases (there’s no knowing); some difficulty finding alternative spellings (off-guard/off guard).
  • displays clear list of results (words, phrasal verbs, idioms, structures) below the search box
  • shows all meanings and parts of speech separately, so you can get to them easily
  • advanced search lets you find words by spelling (e.g. spr*), part of speech and frequency; you can find verbs that follow the verb+object+ing pattern, and much more (it doesn’t find everything, but it’s nice to have)
  • finds words as you type (but you cannot select them with arrow keys; you have to use the mouse)
C
  • has difficulty finding alternative spellings (e.g. flat-out/flat out) and phrases (last straw, for all I care)
  • often hard to get to the right part of speech (e.g. hip-noun vs. hip-adjective)
C+
  • has difficulty finding alternative spellings (e.g. flat-out/flat out) and phrases (last straw, for all I care)
  • pro­nun­ci­ation search
  • advanced search lets you find words by spelling (e.g. spr*), part of speech and frequency
  • finds words as you type
B+
  • finds nearly everything you throw at it: phrasal verbs (e.g. be looking to do sth/looking to do sth), alternative spellings (off-duty/off duty), phrases (there’s no knowing)
  • displays clear list of results (words, phrasal verbs, idioms, structures) below the search box
  • hard to get to the right part of speech (e.g. net-noun vs. net-adjective)
  • advanced search lets you find words by spelling (e.g. spr*), part of speech
  • finds words as you type
F
  • doesn’t find phrasal verbs (e.g. take off), alternative spellings (off-duty/off duty), phrases (last resort) — all you get is a “not found” message
  • slow: 1-5 second delay after you press Enter (poor search algorithms)
  • hard to get to the right part of speech (e.g. net-noun vs. net-adjective)
  • advanced search lets you find words that start with X, end with X, or contain X
  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
Layout
B
  • screenshot
  • everything is easy to read and looks very nice
  • useless header with the name of the dictionary takes up valuable space
  • hard to use side-by-side with another application (this is the smallest possible window size)
  • pop-up mode lets you work side-by-side, but does not have transcriptions
B
  • screenshot
  • everything is easy to read and looks nice
  • headword and pro­nun­ci­ation information remain visible even if you scroll down (in longer entries, you don’t have to scroll up to listen to the pro­nun­ci­ation)
  • hard to use side-by-side with another application (this is the smallest possible window size)
  • in pop-up mode, the window is a bit too small (cannot be resized) and there are no recordings
C+
  • screenshot
  • too many boxes, buttons and links
  • the links in the rightmost column take up too much valuable space; they should be integrated into the entries as in the Cambridge dictionary
  • two separate boxes for the A-Z list of words and the search results (adds to the clutter)
  • entries are easy to read and look nice
  • useless header with the name of the dictionary takes up valuable screen space
  • hard to use side-by-side with another application (this is the smallest possible window size)
  • in pop-up mode, the window is much too small (cannot be resized)
C
  • screenshot
  • boxes in the rightmost column take up too much valuable space and they are too small to be useful anyway
  • entries could be more readable; example sentences are listed without line breaks
  • useless header with the name of the dictionary takes up valuable screen space
  • hard to use side-by-side with another application (this is the smallest possible window size)
  • pop-up mode lets you work side-by-side, but uses a small font and does not have examples or transcriptions
B

Summary

  Cambridge 3 Collins 5 Longman 5 Oxford 7 Collins 6
CONTENT
For learners primarily interested in BrE/AmE, respectively
B-/C+
B/C+
A-/A-
B/B-
D/F
SOFTWARE
B
B
C
C
F
Summary
  • Good content for learners of British English, average for learners of American English. Good software with relatively few problems.
  • Good content for learners of British English, average for learners of American English. Good software with relatively few problems.
  • Outstanding content spoiled by poor software quality. The only dictionary with really good information on AmE.
  • Good content for learners of British English, adequate for AmE. Poor software quality.
  • If dictionaries were cars, the 6th edition COBUILD would be a wheelbarrow.
Buy online
prices as of April 2013
  • Superseded by the 8th edition:
  • Paperback + CD (~$32) – Amazon.co.uk
  • Paperback + CD (~$43 w/free worldwide deli­very) – Book Depository
  • Don’t buy it.

As you see, there is no clear winner — no dictionary that would be best (or even close to best) in all the categories. That said, here are a few thoughts:

  • If you are learning American pronunciation, you should probably verify the pronunciations of words in an American dictionary like the online Merriam-Webster Dictionary. The information on AmE in British dictionaries cannot be fully trusted (the LDOCE is the most trustworthy).
  • If you are focused on AmE and you want to use just one dictionary, the only good choice is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
  • It is difficult to recommend the best dictionary for everyone. The Longman has the richest, most helpful content, but its software interface is an obstacle. On the other hand, the Cambridge and the Collins (5th edition) are the most pleasant to use. You could choose the Longman’s great content and put up with its annoyances, or you could decide that efficiency and convenience are more important. The decision will depend on your specific needs and your tolerance for bad software.
  • Added Oct 2010: After a year, I have decided the LDOCE is too painful to use.
  • Added May 2012: Taku Fukada has developed an excellent viewer app for the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, currently available for free! It lets you access all of the LDOCE’s great content (including recordings and the Activator thesaurus). The app is super-fast, very user-friendly, and has an awesome search engine. It also solves all the software problems that I described in this review. I’ve been using this software for two months and I still can’t believe how good it is. LDOCE + Taku’s viewer is a killer combination of excellent dictionary content and brilliant software. If you are serious about learning English, you should get it — it will make you want to look up more words and learn more English.