I find dictionaries tend to provide definitions that are too general and don't cut to the heart of how words are distinctly used. Is there a dictionary that does a better job defining words or providing examples as to illustrate the particular nuance in how words tend to be used?

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    1) Because of history here, these kinds of questions are usually handled on meta.english.stackexchange.com 2) I don't know of any dictionary that provides real world examples other then OED (in English). OED also is very good at making finer distinctions than most (multiple entries per word and each definition comes with its own set of examples). 3) The OED could be better, but it is conservative (it takes a while for changes in meanings to appear there, but that is a good thing to have in at least one dictionary).
    – Mitch
    Jun 20 at 21:01
  • 4) This is probably a duplicate on meta, search for 'dictionary' there for lengthier answers.
    – Mitch
    Jun 20 at 21:01
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    Merriam-Webster online has usage notes for many words that explain fine distinctions. There are a lot of specialist books on commonly confused words, and many usage guides and some style guides also explain distinctions.
    – Stuart F
    Jun 20 at 21:10
  • Not exactly what you asked for, but I often use linguee.com for that. Anyway, the best way to choose your favorite dictionary is to look one thing up in multiple resources and make a short list. They alternate among them until you're able to settle on just one. Note, freedictionary.com will give you a handful all on one page. Jun 21 at 1:47
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    S.I. Hayakawa, Choose the Right Word: A Modern Guide to Synonyms (1968) is a useful reference work, as is Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1984), although much of the latter work is taken with minor changes from Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms (1942). The trouble with dictionaries that illuminate fine distinctions between words is that most people in the real world don't use words with such exactitude, so there is a gap between the claimed accuracy and precision of the dictionary's definitions and the mushy or fuzzy way that most English speakers deploy their vocabulary.
    – Sven Yargs
    Jun 21 at 7:08
  • Please do not answer in comments. If you have an answer to the question, please use the "Your Answer" box.
    – Andrew Leach Mod
    Jun 21 at 8:24
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    Does this answer your question? What good reference works on English are available?
    – Mitch
    Jun 21 at 13:15

1 Answer 1


As noted in comments, OED is peerless and M-W perhaps the best free online source, though other dictionaries now provide useful usage notes. No descriptive dictionary can be fully comprehensive; it would be colossal and nigh-on unsearchable (and out of date within a week).

Websites like ELU and Wordwizard tackle polysemy, including clashing (stipulative) definitions (polysemy with hypernymy, or conflicting usages). But again, total accuracy, reasonable sampling, and authoritativeness cannot be assumed.

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