My last post tackled the question of which style guide is best for you. Style guides work hand in hand with dictionaries, so the logical next question is, which dictionary is best for you?
Just like style guides, certain dictionaries enjoy wider usage within specific writing categories, so we’ll look at three popular options and conclude with a brief discussion on pocket dictionaries.
Please note that this review is for American English dictionaries. If you’re looking for British English dictionaries, consider Oxford Dictionaries.
Three Popular Dictionaries
Three of the most popular dictionaries are Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Webster’s New World College Dictionary, and The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary is preferred by two our primary style guides:
- The Chicago Manual of Style (Chicago style) and its student version called Turabian1
- MLA Handbook from the Modern Language Association of America (MLA style)2
Anyone following Chicago or MLA style should consider using this dictionary.
Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary offers supplemental sections for foreign words and phrases, biographical and geographical names, and signs and symbols. It also includes a style section that provides basic advice on punctuation, capitals and italics, and documentation of sources.
Merriam-Webster, Inc. published the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary in 2003. It is 1,623 pages long.
Style Guide Alert: APA Style
Older editions of the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association (APA style) recommended following Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. However, the current seventh edition of the Publication Manual recommends following Merriam-Webster.com for general words and the APA Dictionary of Psychology for psychological terms.3
Webster’s New World College Dictionary
The Associated Press Stylebook (AP style) and the New York Times prefer Webster’s New World College Dictionary.4 Therefore, anyone following AP style specifically or journalism styles generally should consider this dictionary.
Webster’s New World College Dictionary includes twelve supplemental sections including punctuation rules, monetary units, books of the Bible, and commonly used weights and measures.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the fifth edition of Webster’s New World College Dictionary in 2016. It is 1,703 pages long.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language
Although The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language hasn’t been chosen as a preferred dictionary by any of our primary style guides, it is still a strong option to consider, particularly if you aren’t a strict follower of Chicago, AP, APA, or MLA style.
The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language offers full-color illustrations and images, the use of blue text for entries (to separate the entries from their definitions), and a handy thumb index (alphabetized notches in the fore edge) for easy access. It also includes appendices on Indo-European and Semitic roots as well as a variety of in-text charts and tables.
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt published the fifth edition of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language in 2011 and updated it in 2016. It is 2,084 pages long.
What about Pocket Dictionaries?
You may be wondering if so-called pocket dictionaries are as good as their full-length counterparts. The answer is, probably not. Pocket dictionaries (and their slightly larger counterparts called home and office dictionaries) aren’t comprehensive enough for business professionals, college students, or professional writers and editors.
If you’re looking for a lower cost, portable option to pair with your full-length dictionary, consider The American Heritage Dictionary, which is the condensed, paperback version of The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language.
1. The Chicago Manual of Style, 16th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010), 7.1; Kate L. Turabian, A Manual for Writers of Research Papers, Theses, and Dissertations, 9th ed. (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 293.
2. “Dictionary 101,” The MLA Style Center, accessed October 4, 2019.
3. Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 6th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2010), 4.12; Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association, 7th ed. (Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, 2020), 6.11.
4. The Associated Press Stylebook 2020–2022 (New York: Associated Press, 2020), 84.