For Part 1, click here.
Want to read better and write better? You need a dictionary.
But which one? In this day of seemingly limitless Internet resources, that’s a very good question. I always recommend the Longman Dictionary of the English Language.
Let’s use the word “glib” as an example.
Google Dictionary (New Oxford American Dictionary)
If you have an Internet connection, you can define just about any term by using Google: type “define:glib” into the Google search bar. The definition comes from the New Oxford American Dictionary (the same dictionary provided with the Apple OS):
glib: (of words or the person speaking them) fluent and voluble but insincere and shallow: she was careful not to let the answer sound too glib.
This definition poses many problems for both native speakers and ESL students: What do the words “fluent” and “voluble” mean? What about “shallow” — doesn’t that apply only to bodies of water? Even “insincere” poses problems for young students who are still developing their emotional understanding. The New Oxford American Dictionary is a poor choice for English language learners.
In addition to this dictionary published by Oxford University Press, a Google search for “English dictionary” turns up links to the following: Dictionary.com, Collins, Cambridge, Merriam-Webster, Macmillan, and Longman. Let’s test the value of each one.
glib: readily fluent, often thoughtlessly, superficially, or insincerely so
Problem Words: “readily,” “fluent,” “superficial,” “insincere”
Evaluation for learners: Very bad
Collins Dictionary (American English)
glib: speaking or spoken in a smooth, fluent, easy manner, often in a way that is too smooth and easy to be convincing
Problem Words: “fluent”
Evaluation for learners: Bad
Cambridge Dictionary (American English)
glib: easy and confident in speech, with little thought or sincerity
Problem Words: “sincerity”
Evaluation for learners: OK
glib: 1. said or done too easily or carelessly: showing little preparation or thought; 2. speaking in a smooth, easy way that is not sincere
Problem Words: “sincere”
Evaluation for learners: OK
glib: a glib remark is made without careful thought and suggests that a situation is better or simpler than it really is
Problem Words: None
Evaluation for learners: Good
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English
glib: said easily and without thinking about all the problems involved — used to show disapproval
Problem Words: None
Evaluation for Learners: Excellent
This definition is excellent for two reasons: first, it uses words that are easy to understand; second, it clearly states why the word is used.
The definitions are good because Longman’s editors write them using only the 2,000 most common words in the English language. The individual definitions may use more words than those found in other dictionaries, but they are much easier to understand.
In addition to providing clear and simple definitions for difficult words, the Longman Dictionary provides detailed explanations for the use of more common words. For a few illustrations, consider its entries for reason, from, come, and way.
Every dictionary has drawbacks. Because the Longman dictionary defines only 230,000 words, it leaves out many rare ones. For example, it has no definition for “palanquin” (common enough to appear in children’s stories) or “contumacious.” It has no definition for “Logos,” “capuchin,” or “templar,” terms that a college student would likely encounter in a European history class. All of these words are available on Merriam-Webster’s free online abridged dictionary.
Nor does the Longman Advanced American Dictionary include entries on word origins (though the Longman Elementary Dictionary does). Word origins are helpful for advanced learners who want to anchor their knowledge of English in a deeper understanding of its history. However, few high school students and college students need this information or even know how to make use of it.
Finally, the Longman dictionary is a guide to contemporary English, not to historical usage. In Robert Louis Stevenson’s books, “condescend” could mean “to speak graciously to a social inferior”; this use of the word was considered a compliment. In Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Raven,” “flirt” refers to a flicking movement of the wings or tail. Neither of these definitions appears in the Longman dictionary but the Merriam-Webster dictionary has both.
Despite these limitations, the advantages of the Longman dictionary are obvious. We recommend that, through college, students use it as their primary dictionary, turning to the Merriam-Webster Abridged Dictionary for the definitions that Longman lacks.
Longman publishes several versions of its dictionary, for students of different levels.
Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, 5th edition
For intermediate and advanced students. 230,000 words, phrases, and meanings.
Longman Dictionary of American English, 4th edition
For beginning students. 55,000 words and phrases.
A great first dictionary/thesaurus for both younger students and ESL students. Kids can expand their vocabulary simply by paging through and looking at the pictures. Excellent examples of usage and etymologies. One of the appendices is a list of words commonly used in academic settings — useful for ESL college students.
Please Note: As of the time of sending this article, I’ve never received promotional materials from Pearson-Longman, publishers of the Longman Dictionary of the English Language. I have several copies in my office, all bought with my own money.
For Part 1 of How to Read, click here.
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