All dictionaries are equal but some are more equal than others – comparing them can be interesting!
All my students have to have an English to English dictionary and a good grammar book and, if possible, a thesaurus. I insist on it! These are the basic tools of a serious student along with a notebook and er, of course, a pen (you’d be surprised!). I’m often asked which are the best and I feel that, like cars, food and mobile phones there is an element of personal preference here and you should see which ones you are most comfortable using.
My beloved grammar book is the Thomson and Martinet (I’ve even created a noun out of it!). This was my bible when I began teaching and I still have my battered old copy (probably very out of date now). An other old favourite in my armoury is a book called Meaning and the English Verb by Geoffrey N. Leech (it is particularly good on Future tense usage) this along with the T & M grammar has trotted across the world with me ). My dictionary of choice is the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English.
For serious grammar contemplation I consult A Comprehensive Grammar of English Quirk and Greenbaum (my cherished copy of the University Grammar of English was given away to a German boyfriend in a fit of amour many years ago!) or the Longman Grammar of Spoken and Written English which is a new friend but becoming a firm one! I also have the large two-volume Oxford Dictionary but you really have to have a good breakfast before attempting to consult it!
Collins Cobuild English Usage is a great quick fix and a copy of Longmans Advanced Learner’s Grammar Mark Foley & Diane Hall, obtained at an IATEFL conference is now well-thumbed! This last book I do recommend to advanced students; the diagnostic tests at the beginning really help to highlight areas for further study. Finally, I know I have to mention Murphy (Essential Grammar in Use Raymond Murphy) – the global grammar of choice. I have a copy and I recommend it to students . I think it has the clearest explanations but I’ve just never really got on with it especially.
I expect many of you are saying ‘Oh no, how can you use that book!’ Macmillan (I like this too) is much better, easier, smaller etc.. -I rest my case – it is a matter of personal choice – however there are some things I think you should look for when making your choice.
Two years ago I was working with a very advanced student (she was herself an English teacher in Spain) she had a vocabulary exercise to complete and complained to me that the dictionary she was using did not have all the words. I assumed that she had written them down wrongly but when we checked they were indeed missing from her advanced dictionary yet contained in mine (the Longman). We also discovered that my dictionary gave many more definitions and explanations so it’s definitely worth checking before you buy!
My top tips
- Don’t rely on a bilingual dictionary unless it is a VERY large tome
- Be realistic – will you need to carry the book around with you? The very best could become a burden if it’s too big or heavy
- CD Rom and on-line dictionaries are great – are you going to have access when you need it – use the same criteria to choose
- See how detailed the dictionary definitions are and get one with as much information as possible
- With grammar books – can you follow the explanations, is everything well laid out, for advanced level work does it push you a bit further
- Check any exercises, sometimes they can be very repetitive and so not very challenging
- Make sure they’re all up to date (I keep my old grammar for reasons of nostalgia) dictionaries and grammars change quite frequently
- If you can’t decide then borrow from the library first and ‘test drive’ them!
My choices may be a little old fashioned. Let me know if you think I should check out something newer and whizzier – I’d be more than happy to ‘test drive’ too!