This is the second in an ongoing series of posts about the references writers and editors should have on their actual or virtual bookshelf.
You should have– and use– a good dictionary. (You are only asking for trouble if you rely on spell-check.) A recent edition is preferable, as new words are added over time, and changes can occur in spelling, hyphenation, plurals, usage, etc. For example, the current edition of my dictionary lists the word “online” (both the adjective and adverb) as one word, no hyphen. The previous edition of the same dictionary published a decade earlier lists the word (adjective and adverb) as “on-line,” two words, with a hyphen.
There are a number of good dictionaries out there, but many copy editors prefer Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th edition (the most recent edition, revised in 2003), which is what I use. It is available in multiple formats: hardcover book (in various bindings, generally priced $22 to $27, but available online for $15 to $20), CD-ROM (which allows you to save the entire dictionary to your computer and easily search it without ever having to load the CD again), and web subscription (for $14.95 per year at www.merriam-webstercollegiate.com). You can also get them in combination– the edition of the book I bought included the CD-ROM and a free one-year subscription to the website for a total of $27 (less than $20 online).
If you need an unabridged dictionary (most people don’t, though copy editors sometimes do), Webster’s Third New International Unabridged Dictionary is a classic, but it is expensive. It is available by web subscription at http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com for $29.95 a year.
The mother of all dictionaries is, of course, the Oxford English Dictionary, which provides the meaning and history of over half a million words, past and present. The OED tells you when each word entered the language and provides over 2.5 million quotations illustrating word usage over time. The OED is available in many formats, all of which are expensive: book form (the 20-volume full set, a two-volume abridged set), CD-ROM, and web subscription (monthly or annually) at www.oed.com. The great news is that many public libraries subscribe to it, so if you have a library card, you may be able to access it for free from your home computer through your library’s website. (For example, on the Seattle Public Library website, the OED is in their list of databases and websites, so if you enter your library card number and PIN, you’ll have full access from home.)
There are many free dictionaries on the web, but I’ll only list a few here:
- Merriam-Webster offers free web access to an online dictionary and thesaurus at www.m-w.com, though access to their premium works (the Collegiate and Unabridged dictionaries) is by paid subscription only.
- OneLook Dictionary Search (www.onelook.com) is a special search engine which has indexed over 1000 online dictionaries. By entering a word or phrase into one search box, you can view results from many different online dictionaries.
- A free online dictionary and thesaurus can be found at www.yourdictionary.com.
Choose the dictionary that best suits your needs. For the casual user, a simple print or online dictionary may suffice. If you write or edit, you should use something more substantial and authoritative. If you are a professional writer or editor, check with your publisher or employer, as they may specify one as part of their house style.