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When adding sources what is the best dictionary to use for American English.

closed as primarily opinion-based by curiousdannii, Helmar, Chenmunka, AndyT, Nathaniel Sep 6 '16 at 22:57

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    What do you mean by "best dictionary"? Which has the best American pronunciation? Which has the best definitions? Which is the most likely to include Americanisms not typically found in British dictionaries? I wouldn't assume that these qualities are necessarily correlated with each other. – Peter Shor Oct 1 '13 at 19:15
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There seems to be some confusion that the Oxford English Dictionary is somehow for the English of England only.

It certainly is not! The OED covers English not just in England but all over the world. It notably gives pronunciations for both RP and in North American English, and has many, many, many terms that are marked as Australian or South African or this or that.

The OED is an historical dictionary, documenting words and their predominant senses over time. There is no other dictionary like it in the English everywhere.

That said, there are certainly specialist dictionaries that cover particular topic areas more fully than the OED does. For example, the Dictionary of American Regional English, normally called DARE, covers that topic much more thoroughly than the OED does. There are also medical dictionaries with rare terms that have not yet appeared in a sufficiently widespread and frequent distribution as to have yet made the OED.

For example, check out the September 2013 quarterly updates to the OED to see how much they are tracking English in all its guises.

  • The OED is dreadfully wrong a lot of times with common words in American usage. DARE is good although I feel some of the regional aspects are sometimes outdated. My question was American English and I feel the OED is a very poor representation to normal speech meanings, especially compared to Merriam-Webster. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 16 '13 at 20:51
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    @RyeBread the OED is wrong? Really? Can you give some examples? It usually clearly states when a usage is obsolete etc. – terdon Sep 16 '13 at 21:35
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    @terdon Maybe, just maybe, Ryebread is referring to the online version of the OED, "Oxford Dictionaries"? I ... whispers... don't like it much myself... I prefer the Oxford Advanced learner Dictionary. That too deals with American usage, there's a OAA(American)D tab. I find that OALD's British definitions more helpful and informative. – Mari-Lou A Sep 18 '13 at 1:11
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    @Mari-LouA, to me the OED will always be that venerable 2 volume, leather bound behemoth, whose print was so small it came with a little drawer holding a magnifying glass that my father had on his desk when I was growing up :). – terdon Sep 18 '13 at 2:24
  • @terdon - This isn't the best example in the world but look at this question english.stackexchange.com/questions/127387/… - The OED is basically wrong - no where in the midwest or the upper east coast do we use landfill to mean waste. MW has a good definition for common usage which I sourced. What is funny is that people are upvoting based on dictionary terms. Not one person has said... I live in the US and we use it to mean waste. However I have had people agree with me. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 16:36
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    @RyeBread sorry, I only have your word for the 'fact' that it is not used. Perhaps you have not come across it. Edwin's comment includes two examples of usage from American publications. Why do you insist on assuming that your usage is the 'correct' one and everyone else is wrong? This site is not so much about popular usage as about the study of the language. Perhaps in your circles it is not used but perhaps it is in others. No offense but I will always believe the OED more than random people I find on the internet. – terdon Sep 18 '13 at 16:41
  • @terdon - When I start communicating to super computers and robots I will use databases as communication reference points. If someone tells me that they do not understand me, I will ask them for the correct terminology. If someone came back to me and said - I live in the US I use the term as waste - then I would think about changing my answer. Using articles as examples is propagating incoherent usage. We differ on philosophy. I am a writer and I hope that people can understand my words without having to look in any dictionary. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 16:52
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    @RyeBread I understand that but I repeat this site is not about "communicating in everyday English", that's what ELL is for. This site is exactly about the kinds of things the OED specializes in, including obscure and obsolete usages. You always seem to think that your usage is the definitive one, your answer on using `10 til 5 is a case in point. Despite my American background, I have never heard that usage and the comments show I am not alone. Yet you insist that is what "Americans" do, because that is what you say. – terdon Sep 18 '13 at 17:02
  • @terdon - I am open to any discussion concerning usage. If someone has a different view I usually comment that I have indeed heard the use. However if someone has an opinion based on a dictionary, I will not argue with a database - and I am certainly not assuming a database is right. When an OED rep gets back to us on landfill meaning I would love to talk or debate. Also if I am misrepresenting American usage, let me hear it from someone in America. I would not argue with you about French usage, just because a French dictionary differs. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 17:19
  • @RyeBread All I am saying is that one individual cannot opine on the usage of an entire country. I am also saying that I have no reason to trust you (or any other user) while I have many to trust a dictionary. My opinion on that particular question is my usage (I'm a native English speaker, by the way), my American family's usage and that of my American friends, and I have not heard till used that way. I am sure it is used that way since you say that's your usage but I don't see how you can speak for all American dialects. Remember, I don't know you, you're just some random guy on a website. – terdon Sep 18 '13 at 17:28
  • @terdon - If I have an opinion of American usage - my opinion can change. The till example is good. I used it all the time and hear it all the time. If someone in Texas said we use XXXX then I would tend to believe them unless someone disagreed or unless XXXX is way off course. I am not saying my opinion speaks for 100% of America or it is the 100% fact or it cannot be changed. My opinion is the usage I hear everyday - and I work in several distinct regions in the US. If you offered something in addition to the word till, I would offer it as an additional answer not accept mine is wrong. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 18:26
  • @terdon - if no one states their opinion for an answer - which almost every answer on this site is (opinion), then where do we start? When I answer something it is a start. If someone disagrees it is modified possibly. If I find out that my answer does not provide the right context or I misread the question then I delete. If we do not need opinion and we will chastise everyone for not using sources then why not just provide a page of links to dictionaries and thesauri for every answer? And I do come to the site to get opinions on word usage not for word lookups. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 18:30
  • @RyeBread perhaps you could post a question on meta outlining your views and we (I) can answer. That way we won't flood tchrist's answer with all these comments. – terdon Sep 18 '13 at 18:31
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    @Rye - Much of this ado seems to have started with the landfill debate. I looked up landfill in OED just now, and it lists (as meaning #3) Material disposed of at such a [landfill] site. You want to claim that's not American usage, but the OED's first citation for such a usage comes from – wait for it – an issue of New Yorker, published in May 1969. Here is that quote: "We intend to put a lot of landfill in the Credibility Gap." The OED's next quote is also from your part of the US: "Philadelphia is now packaging its trash .. shipping the material back to the strip mines as land fill." – J.R. Sep 18 '13 at 19:48
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    @RyeBread The landfill definition linked to in the answer is in ODO, not OED (and is correctly described as "an Oxford definition"). The complete OED is available online to those able to access it. As JR has mentioned, that publication lists the usage in the US nearly 45 years ago. – Andrew Leach Sep 21 '13 at 21:19
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For scholarly or encyclopedic needs, there's probably nothing that can touch the Oxford English Dictionary. That said, I don't have access to it, so all I know about it is what I've gathered from people who cite it; and from what I've seen, I get a similar impression that RyeBread does, namely that it has obscure stuff you can't get anywhere else, as well as a few head-scratchers for common words. My guess is that the vast, vast, vast majority of the material in it is first-rate, but for typical needs, I get the impression it's no better (and possibly a little worse) than any of the major "collegiate" dictionaries: Merriam-Webster, American Heritage, and Webster's New World being the three I'm most familiar with in paper form, and I like them about equally.

I don't mean to rag on the OED, or people who cite the OED, but I also want to say that sometimes I get the impression (and I must stress that this is both subtle and purely subjective) that there can be a tinge of elitism in an OED citation, as if to say "well, I paid for this, so you should trust my citation more". I have occasionally felt that OED citers ride the fine line between scholarliness and condescension (not always successfully).

M-W strikes me as descriptivist-leaning, but not so loosey-goosey as to be without (enough) credibility as an authority. I think for most people, it is more trustworthy than Wikipedia, for example. I like that M-W's on-line version is free and seemingly equivalent to the print version. It makes it easy for me to transfer whatever level of trust I had with the paper version to the on-line version, as well as easy to cite via URL.

Oh, I am just now noticing that the AHD has its own on-line version as well. I am quite sure this is a relatively recent development (maybe in the last couple of years), since I remember lamenting that M-W seemed to be the only "familiar" dictionary to have a decent (and free) on-line version. (My original attempts to find AHD on-line, years ago, brought me to some other reference site, presumably partnered with AHD's publisher, but definitely not a dedicated on-line replica of the print version like M-W already had for some time. So I stuck with M-W and have become so accustomed to it that I never bothered to look for AHD again until just now.)

A lot of people cite Dictionary.com. I must say I have never warmed to this site. It is not clear to me who its editor(s) or expert panel are. It appears to be a collection of other dictionaries' material, primarily Random House and Collins, but with other stuff thrown in as well. TheFreeDictionary.com is of the same ilk, but seems to use American Heritage and Collins (maybe that's the site I used to get when I looked for the AHD). Anyway, I'm sure these are fine—after all, they are citing perfectly legitimate dictionaries—but to me, they don't have the built-in trust (deserved or not) that comes with carrying the name of an established paper dictionary.

To sum up: OED is a great source if you've got it. M-W is fine for ordinary stuff. For the express purpose of citation, these are probably the best, regardless of whether they have the best actual material, simply because they have the best name recognition and are the most likely to be trusted by the most readers.

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    I've upvoted this, because I think it gives a rather balanced answer to the O.P.'s question. The only place where we might differ, though, is the paragraph about elitism; I've seen plenty of closed-mindedness go both ways. I still think the best authority is the conglomerate authority – check as many dictionaries as you can (OneLook being a great place to start), and interpret what you find at each place with an appropriate level of trust. I wouldn't expect the Urban Dictionary to cite usages from the 18th century; I wouldn't expect the OED to give me the latest slang for a nightclub drug. – J.R. Sep 25 '13 at 21:06
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I hold Merriam-Webster at the top of the ladder for American English and common usage. I think it is right almost always. A lot of the other dictionary sources used on this site have, in my opinion, either very dated terminology, uncommon (maybe correct) usage, or sometimes plain incorrect. Again this is for American English usage.

I have spent a lot of time in the UK, France, and Australia but not enough to give any sort of helpful opinion on what dictionaries represent other English dialects.

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    Generally speaking, I find Macmillan and Collins to be just as good as M-W, with a fraction of the ads in their online versions. – J.R. Sep 16 '13 at 23:28
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    @J.R. My firefox browser has a plugin, Adblock Plus, which eliminates those fastidious ads from popping up; very handy for watching youtube videos too. – Mari-Lou A Sep 18 '13 at 1:16
  • @J.R. - I will check out M&C and provide feedback. I have never really used dictionaries before providing answers and I am very disappointed with the definitions that the OED gives in terms of American common usage. For obscure words it does a great job but more "common" words it lacks current meaning - in my opinion. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 16:42
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    @Rye: One other thought – sometimes the best dictionary is multiple dictionaries. That's why I often start my research at OneLook, and often plug Wordnik as well. – J.R. Sep 18 '13 at 18:32
  • @J.R. - I stumbled across OneLook last week and like it. Been writing for 20 years and never really looked at dictionaries. I had no idea that I would disagree with one or that they would disagree with each other. It is one thing to not know the meaning of a word but another when its common usage in your region doesn't make sense dictionary-wise. – RyeɃreḁd Sep 18 '13 at 18:36
  • Merriam-Webster dictionaries are no good for anyone except native American speakers who only need to know the most common meanings of a word. They do not show pronunciation, and only some of the etymology. The American Heritage is reliable on etymology, but also bad on pronunciation. Dictionaries published in England are better, because American dictionary publishers believe Americans are too ignorant to use a real dictionary with real information; and by and large they're correct. – John Lawler Sep 27 '13 at 22:44
  • @John: I believe the Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1961) was an excellent dictionary. Unfortunately, it is now outdated, the fourth edition is not yet out, and it might easily turn out to be no good if and when it does get published. – Peter Shor Oct 1 '13 at 19:20
  • Except for Kenyon and Knott, all M-W dictionaries are unsatisfactory for pronunciation. They still use Webster's idiosyncratic symbols based on spelling, not pronunciation. – John Lawler Oct 1 '13 at 19:48
  • @John: yes, the Third New International used Webster's idiosyncratic symbols, which made it quite a bit harder to decode pronunciation then IPA, but the information was there. (And IPA does a terrible job with English weak vowels, but Webster's idiosyncratic system probably isn't much better.) – Peter Shor Oct 1 '13 at 20:38
  • My impression is that individual variation on pronunciation of English weak vowels is orders of magnitude too high to be precise about anything in a dictionary. K&K are doing well to distinguish an /ɝ/ from an /ə/ consistently. And their decision to use /ɪ/ as the symbol for the final vowel in lovely, for instance, is not the best one they ever made. Still, it's consistent, and it's just a phonemic symbol, which is arbitrary, as they point out repreatedly. – John Lawler Oct 1 '13 at 21:54

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