A good dictionary is essential when writing, whether it’s to check the spelling, the meaning or the use of a word. I have two rather large dictionaries on my desk, placed conveniently to grab. But I have an admission to make. I don’t open them very often. Instead, when I need to check something, I use an online dictionary. Regardless of how close my paper dictionaries are, it’s more convenient and seems much faster to use the Internet. Of course, online dictionaries are also very convenient when you don’t have a ‘real’ dictionary available.

I regularly use the first three online dictionaries. While I do have my preferred one, I’d encourage you to try a few to decide which one/s are the best for you. We’d love to hear which ones you like and if you know of others.

For this post I searched for the word ‘writing’ and the expression ‘nothing to write home about’.

Cambridge Dictionary Online

Strengths:
– You can search in the Advanced Learner’s, American English, Idioms or Phrasal Verbs dictionaries.
– Its pages are clear and aren’t filled with a lot of distracting information or advertising like other online dictionaries.

Weaknesses:
– Type your word or phrase into the search box and you’ll be given a list of the entries from which to select from, rather than going straight to the dictionary entry. For example, after typing the expression ‘nothing to write home about’ the list that appears has more than forty entries to choose from, the very last being ‘nothing to write home about’.
– Even though this is a dictionary for advanced learners, the definitions can be very simple(there are four different meanings for ‘writing’), sometimes too simple and not all meanings of a word have an example sentence.

Dictionary.com

Strengths:
– You can search in a dictionary, thesaurus, encyclopedia and on the web, and also translate a word or phrase.
– Dictionary.com searches multiple sources. For ‘writing’ it found entries in 7 dictionaries including a financial dictionary and a bible dictionary. Its sources also include idiom and slang dictionaries, so it gave an easily understandable definition for ‘nothing to write home about’.
– There is etymological (word history) information about the entries. For ‘writing’ it’s quite basic, whereas ‘nothing to write home about’ is more complex (“This idiom originated in the late 1800s, possibly among troops stationed far from home, and became widespread during World War I.”).
– With Flash Player you can hear a word’s pronunciation (with an American accent).

Weaknesses:
– The ‘help’ information offers a list of questions which aren’t very helpful if your question’s not there.
– Not all definitions have an example sentence.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English Online

Strengths:
– The ‘How to use’ button shows what to do step by step and there’s also a short list of FAQs including tips.
– The definitions are comprehensive, often with more than one example sentence for each different meaning of the word (there are five different meanings for ‘writing’).

Weaknesses:
– It works much better with single words or two-word combinations (‘write-up’ and ‘ghost writer’ both went straight to the definition, but no results were found for ‘nothing to write home about’.

Merriam-Webster Online
While the homepage is crowded with other information including advertising, you can pay for premium services which allows you to access the unabridged and advert-free version of the dictionary.

Urban Dictionary
For looking up colloquial words and phrases you’re not going to be able to find in traditional dictionaries. For example, ‘textual satisfaction’ (The feeling you get when your phone has a new message/missed call); ‘G2G’ (got to go).

Some other online dictionaries:
encarta.msn.com
en.wiktionary.org

www.etymonline.com
www.howjsay.com
www.onelook.com
www.thefreedictionary.com
www.yourdictionary.com

Let us know which online dictionaries you prefer and why. We’d love to read your comments.

(Image greeblie)