Dictionary Dilemma

I am in the market for a good dictionary, but I am afraid that I will never use it. These days, spell-checking software take care of the vast majority of spelling-related issues I have (some still slip through). Then, too, I discovered earlier today that Siri will spell things for you if you ask her to. No one ever told me this. Between meetings, I just said, “Siri, how do you spell hippopotamus?” and she replied the letter-by-letter spelling. It is particularly useful because sometimes, when I don’t know how to spell a word, I give up and choose a different word instead.

A dictionary seems like an essential tool for a writer to have on his or her desk. I have a copy of The Elements of Style, and I even refer to it on occasion, if only to remind myself to OMIT NEEDLESS WORDS. That is good advice and rarely seems to stick. But there is no dictionary on my desk. It is too easy these days to type a word into a browser search to get a definition. Why have a dictionary cluttering my desk when I have the entire Internet at my fingertips?

The answer is because I want one.

I received my first dictionary as a present during the holidays when I was six or seven years old. It was the Macmillan’s Children’s Dictionary. My brother got the Grease soundtrack record. I remember that dictionary well. It was large and white, and had lots of pictures set in with the word definitions. I was careful to use the guide words to find what I was looking for—they’d taught us that in school. I don’t know what happened to my old dictionary. I suspect it is in a storage barrel at my parent’s house.

Before I headed off to college, my grandmother gave me a dictionary. I had that dictionary for a very long time, and I got a lot of good use out of it, but time has erased it from existence. I can’t even recall when I stopped using it.

Wanting a dictionary isn’t enough. I want the right dictionary. There are too many to choose from. I did a search for “best dictionary for writers” and Google returned 24 million results. The top result was the New Oxford Dictionary for Writers and Editors, which sounds promising, except I’d never heard of it before. I’m familiar with the OED, of course, but how is a dictionary for writers and editors different from an ordinary dictionary?

One post I read seemed to prefer Webster’s Dictionary over Oxford for what seemed like good reasons. Webster’s appealed to me because of that line in Johnny Mercer’s song, “Too Marvelous for Words”:

Your much too much, and just too very very
To ever be, in Webster’s dictionary

I’m not sure that is a good enough reason to choose one dictionary over another. Besides, Webster’s Dictionary has been replaced by Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary. I don’t know who Merriam was, and I fell down a Wikipedia rabbit hole trying to find out. All things being equal, it seemed to me that the Merriam-Webster Dictionary would suit my needs, so I searched for it on Amazon and saw that they had it in stock for $3.87.

But there’s a problem. Amazon also lists a new edition of the Merriam-Webster Dictionary which comes out on January 1, 2016. The previous edition is twelve years old. Probably I should wait for the new edition to come out and get it after the new year. Using a dictionary more often could be a New Year’s resolution.

In the meantime, I’ll practice asking Siri how to spell words. I just asked her to spell philately. If I have spelled it wrong here it is because Siri can’t spell—and I lack a good dictionary.


  1. Let me contribute with a reason: the joy of opening it at a random page and be surprised.
    You know what? maybe I’ll get one for myself. Maybe two. I am a native Spanish speaker, but I love English language quite as much.

  2. I could expound for hours on what makes a good dictionary and what you might want to look for. However, due to the brevity required by this comment box, I would say that foremost you should decide if you want a prescriptivist dictionary (one that describes how the rules of English say words should be used) or a descriptivist dictionary (one that describes how the language is used by the people who use it). My favorite prescriptivist dictionary is the American Heritage; my favorite descriptivist (other than the OED, which is wonderful but huge) is the Merriam-Webster 11th Collegiate edition.


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