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What’s new in the 4th edition of the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary?

The 3rd edition of the Collins COBUILD English Dictionary for Advanced Learners and its CD-ROM version, called Collins COBUILD on CD-ROM, were our favorite English dictionaries. This article describes the differences between that edition (published in 2001) and the latest, fourth edition (2003), now titled “Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary”. The fifth edition (2006) is almost identical to the fourth.

If you don’t have the 3rd edition, you should read the full reviews of the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary (4th/5th edition) and its CD-ROM version.

What’s new in the book?

  • “Now with CD-ROM”. The most important advantage of this new edition is that it includes the software version of the dictionary. For about $25, you get the book and CD. Previously, the CD alone cost at least $35.
  • Fewer example sentences. The smaller format and more readable layout come at a price. The editors threw out 1 out of 4 example sentences, bringing the total number of examples from 105,000 down to 75,000. According to my estimates (I ran 10 random pages from the 3rd and 4th editions through OCR software and counted the number of characters), the new edition contains 20% less text than the previous one.
  • Fewer meanings. Many word meanings have been removed. It’s difficult to say how many, but it took me about 15 minutes to find 10 meanings which are missing from the new edition.
  • More pleasant to use. The book is smaller and easier to carry around. The headwords and other elements of the layout are printed in blue. The paper is better (in the previous edition it was so thin you could almost see through it), so you can turn the pages more easily. The font is slightly larger. In short, this edition is very pleasant to use (for a paper dictionary).
  • “Dumbed down” pronunciations. Phonetic transcriptions in the 3rd edition used the italicized æ, ʊ, ɪ, etc. to show that a sound is often pronounced as a schwa (ə). In the 4th edition, italics are not used. For example, admonish is transcribed as /ædˈmɒnɪʃ/, which is not accurate, because the word is usually pronounced /ədˈmɒnɪʃ/. What’s even more misleading, words ending in -ful are transcribed /-fʊl/ instead of /-fəl/.
  • “Access to English” section. The 4th edition contains an “Access to English” section, which provides useful example sentences and phrases that you can use when writing essays, giving presentations, telephoning, writing business correspondence, and applying for a job.
  • Shorter list of most frequently used words. The 3rd edition had a list of 1700 most frequently used English words. The new edition only lists about 700 words. The list is a good idea for learners who want to learn vocabulary or pronunciation in a systematic way. For example, my friend Krzysztof Wikar added the phonetic transcriptions of the 1700 words to his SuperMemo collection. The new, shorter list is much less useful for such purposes.
  • Some new headwords, like authoring, bioterrorism, local area network, and low-impact.
  • Changed diamond system. The 3rd edition labeled each word with 0 to 5 “diamonds” (♦) to show how frequently the word is used by English speakers. In this edition, words are given 0 to 3 diamonds.
  • Pictures. There is a section with pictures of everyday objects (like a bicycle or a lettuce) at the end of the book, but there are no pictures in the dictionary itself.

Here is an example entry in the 3rd edition and the 4th edition:

What’s new in the CD-ROM version?

  • 20% less information. This edition of the CD has fewer definitions and example sentences than the previous one — just like the paper version (see above). HarperCollins removed useful information from the book to make it physically smaller and more usable. Why did they remove the same information from the CD? Because all dictionary publishers think about the paper version first; then they copy the contents to CD.
  • The CD is now included with the paper dictionary ($25 soft cover), but, unlike the 3rd edition, it does not contain the thesaurus, the Collins COBUILD English Grammar, or the Collins COBUILD Guide to English Usage. If you want the full package, you will have to buy the CD separately (the “Collins COBUILD Resource Pack”), as before, for about $30.
  • Still no transcriptions. Apparently the people at HarperCollins still think transcriptions are unnecessary as long as you provide sound recordings.
  • American pronunciations... sort of. This edition has recordings of American pronunciations, but only for certain (not too many) words. See the main review for details.
  • Copy & paste still broken. You still can’t copy part of a definition and paste it into another application. You have to copy the entire entry (which can have many pages).
  • Wordbank sentences no longer contain strange tags. In each Wordbank sentence, the software colors the word you’re searching for, and does it much more reliably than the previous edition (the previous edition would often mark the wrong word; now such mistakes are rare).
  • Scrolling works much faster.
  • According to the information on the CD, the software now works on Macs (OS 8.6 or higher required).


Surprisingly, the 4th edition of the Collins COBUILD Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary is a worse product than the 3rd edition. The editors removed 20% of the information from both the book and the CD — many definitions and example sentences were thrown away. In addition, the editors managed to mess up the (previously excellent) phonetic transcription system in the paper version.

On the plus side for the book, it is now smaller and easier to use and the 32-page “Access to English” section is very useful. The only “plusses” for the new CD-ROM are some minor bug fixes and American recordings for some words.

If you already have the 3rd edition of the book or the CD, stick to it. What if you don’t have it? Well, I hate HarperCollins for making my favorite dictionary worse, but I have to admit that the 4th edition is still definitely worth buying — especially if you consider that you can get the “book + CD” package for only $25.