How to choose a dictionary

It’s not as easy as just grabbing one off the bookstore shelf. Take a checklist of words and compare.

Recently I found myself sitting on the floor of a sprawling bookstore under a big REFERENCE sign, surreptitiously liberating a dictionary from its shrink wrapping.

I feel bad about this; I do. But it was all in the name of research. Besides, they’ll never sell the damned things, will they?

Who buys dictionaries anymore?

Well, communicators, at least, still need a trusty word resource, whether it’s a subscription to a Web-based dictionary or a tiny-type Oxford English Dictionary that you must read with a magnifying glass. If nothing else, a stout hardbound volume is handy for raising your computer screen to prevent you from slouching at your desk.

Yet it is no easy decision to buy one versus another, perhaps because it’s hard to shop without considering your own philosophy of usage.

Prescriptive or descriptive?

Are you looking for a dictionary that’s more prescriptive, evaluating whether usage is accepted or not, as the American Heritage Dictionary traditionally has done? Or descriptive, which defines how the language is used but is less inclined to rule out widespread usage—along the lines of Merriam-Webster?

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