I have been reading "Dictionary of American idioms" and I was impressed by the way phrasal verbs are explained. For example, the phrasal verbs associated with the word abide are defined in the dictionary as follows:

abide by something: to follow the rules of something; to obey someone’s orders.
abide with someone: to remain with someone; to stay with someone.

But, the dictionary is centered on idioms and phrasal verbs alone. It does not include all correct usages of verbs.

I am interested in a dictionary that includes all the correct usages of words, not just verbs or phrasal verbs. For example, such dictionary would also include the following for abide:

abide in somewhere: Tom abided in the wilderness
abide someone: I can't abide Tom.

Is there such dictionary?

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    Few respectable online dictionaries omit multi-word verbs nowadays. On the other hand, what is universally agreed to be the most comprehensive dictionary available, OED, gives the caveat that it does not include all the words (never mind all the senses) in the English lexicon. Commented Oct 25, 2017 at 22:56
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    @Sukl One; It's off-topic for the main site. Two; Although on the meta site you have fewer eyeballs for your question, those are the users who know a lot about dictionaries and such resources.
    – NVZ Mod
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 10:37
  • A slightly philosophical question (at least for English) is whether there is such a thing as all usages. French is defined by l'Académie française, but English has no official standard. A French dictionary can therefore be incorrect because it deviates from the prescript of l'Académie, but not an English dictionary.
    – MSalters
    Commented Oct 30, 2017 at 0:37

1 Answer 1


Short answer:

No, there's no perfectly correct dictionary, but the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) will probably get you what you want.

Longer answer:

There are a number of issues you bring up.

'Correct' for a dictionary is a strange usage. Does one typo make it 'incorrect'? Do a handful of oversimplifications make it 'incorrect'? I don't think you mean or want 'correct'. I think you mean 'relatively more accurate' or possibly 'relatively better at explaining nuances' (those two overlap but are not the same thing).

Given those two possibilities, most general dictionaries are not intended to be explainers but are intended to be references. In a reference, you look at the definition and confirm that yes, that is what I meant, in an explanation, you get the wordy nuanced comparison or history or feelings or context.

A dictionary that is intended to have good explanations for each entry is, because of printing constraints (number of pages), most likely going to restrict itself to a subset of all words, like just slang or just regionalisms or just a particular technical area.

A dictionary that is intended to be accurate, also because of page constraints, will attempt to get the most accurate definition in as few words as possible. Which sometimes misses nuances.

Your phrasal verb dictionary seems to be high quality for its subset.

For the general set of all words in English, the best, though not necessarily correct in all dimensions, is the OED. It attempts to distinguish distinguishable meanings of words, and gives many citations that exhibit that meaning over time. It's not perfect, but they're always editing and making it better.

Do not confuse the OED with Oxford Dictionaries, which, while associated and may possibly have the same database of definitions way way back in editorial history, do not have the same intent. OED is more scholarly; OD is a general uncomplicated reference which oversimplifies and has way fewer entries.

In the end, no, there's no perfectly correct dictionary, but the OED will probably get you what you want.

  • +1 One big caveat with the OED is that it is a subscription service, and not cheap. However, many people can get access through their local or institutional library. Even libraries that don't subscribe will often have a print version, though that is going to be more out-of-date. I also find it not always that great for modern/recent slang and jargon. Even with those caveats, though, it is a wonderful resource.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 18:50
  • @1006a As of 2017, hard print dictionaries are still alive (though the trees they came from are not). And recent slang takes time to get by dictionary editing for a good reason - new words may end up not taking, even in a short time. But to your point, the OED, at least from what I've heard and experienced, in both the US and UK, often has online free access using your local library card ID. Takes a few steps to login but it's free. And you get all the OED's online search resources.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 19:39
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    Yes, the link in my comment is to the OED's info page, which talks about library access. And print dictionaries are definitely alive and well, but the print OED not so much—while the OED Online is continuously updated, the only print product (and it is still in print, so you can purchase it "new") is the 2nd Edition, which was up-to-date as of 1989 but doesn't include any of the updates made since then. So far as I can tell, there is no current plan to physically publish another version of the OED (though of course that may change eventually).
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 19:50
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    Here's a help page that's more specifically about library access: public.oed.com/how-to-subscribe/does-my-library-subscribe. It also has further links to individual subscription info.
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 19:53
  • @1006a wow. I must not be able to read. You say that in your second sentence. Anyway...thanks for the links that should get anybody started.
    – Mitch
    Commented Oct 27, 2017 at 20:23
  • No worries—it's really low contrast. I'm a librarian, so I'll take almost any excuse to send folks to the library ;).
    – 1006a
    Commented Oct 28, 2017 at 16:09
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    This is indeed a very good answer. I don't want to get lost in semantics, but hey, we are on english.se. You say the dictionary does not explain but is rather intended as a reference. Isn't it the other way around? The dictionary is always 'following' the language. It attempts to explain, as in give a picture of the language at a certain point in time. Saying that a dictionary is a reference makes me think you are suggesting the dictionary has the last word, which is certainly not the case.
    – myradio
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 11:08
  • @myradio Interesting question. I use the idea 'explanation' to mean a discourse that explores the nuances. Dictionaries just don't do that. They do the minimum: they use the fewest words possible to capture an idea that is not wrong. So that for a native speaker, when they look up a word they are unsure of, that person can say 'aha, yes, that is what it means'. A reference means that it is not intended as a learning situation but as a quick lookup to remind or state bald facts. Haha I just looked up 'reference' and it doesn't help explain here the extent of what you and I know about it.
    – Mitch
    Commented Jun 19, 2018 at 12:10

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