Dictionaries: Online or Paper, and Why?
April 29, 2005 11:44 AM   Subscribe

I'm researching why and when people use online dictionaries instead of (or in addition to) paper ones, and vice versa. I'd love some feedback from MeFites as to which they prefer and why.

Just to make it clear -- I don't think that paper is superior to online, that's not my agenda. I'm genuinely curious as to how people use online dictionaries. Is it pure convenience? Do you have little tricks you'd like to share? Preferred sites? Do you use CD-ROM or mobile versions? Any answers gratefully accepted.
posted by esperluette to Writing & Language (52 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
I would say that dictionary.com is about a million times easier than finding a paper one and spending time to look up a word.
posted by borkingchikapa at 11:47 AM on April 29, 2005

I prefer paper copies most of the time and one is always handy. For me, I find using it faster than looking it up on the web most of the time.

When I do use online dictionaries, it's because a paper one isn't handy.
posted by Captaintripps at 11:52 AM on April 29, 2005

Convenience. I never touch paper dictionaries anymore, I always go straight to Merriam-Webster. Faster than opening a book.
posted by knave at 11:53 AM on April 29, 2005

I use Google to spellcheck, and their link in the top right hand corner for Answer.com's definition. I only use a paper dictionary when I'm not in front of the computer, typically when I'm laying in bed reading.
posted by nitsuj at 11:55 AM on April 29, 2005

I never pick up that fat, cumbersome paper dictionary. I'm usually in front of the pc when I need one anyway, so I just google.
posted by wsg at 11:58 AM on April 29, 2005

The Internet weighs zero pounds on a computer and is my easily accessible library. When looking at the mobility of it, realize how fewer back problems are created by it. Also, it is more forgiving when a word’s true spelling is unknown adding a less time factor for finding it. Then the friendly ability of finding a words definition even when misspelled is the main reason I use the Internet’s version.
posted by thomcatspike at 11:59 AM on April 29, 2005

I've been studying medicine recently, and using the online Steadman's Medical Dictionary extensively. It's not a public resource, but I have free access through my university.

I also have the 2000 page paper version of the dictionary at home. It is roughly 1,000,000 times better than its sorry online presence. The online version has incredibly awful search logic. To look up, say, superior mesentery vein, I've learned that I have to search for "vein", and the results (all condensed in a single page) will have the entry for superior mesentery vein way, way down (and for some inexplicable reason, the entries are usually but not always arranged alphabetically). Also, the online dictionary takes absolutely zero advantage of the capabilities of the medium that are not present in the book. For example, my latin is weak so I have to search for the root "phrenic". The dictionary will tell me that it's synonymous with "diaphragmatic" - so far, so good. But will it actually give me a link I can click and go to the definition of diaphragmatic (say, in case I wanted to find out what the phrenic nerve is, using the messed up lookup system described above)? Nope. I have to copy/paste.

I can go on and on about how much I love the paper version of Steadman's, and loathe the online one. However, I use the online one all the time, wherein the paper gets a couple of lookups per week. There are 2 simple reasons for this:
1) I can access the online dictionary from anywhere. The paper dictionary weighs a good 15 pounds. I maintain that it is one of the best deals in the world, in price-per-page metric.
2) More importantly, I take all my notes on computer, using MS OneNote. Being able to copy/paste definitions has saved me literally hundreds of hours. Obviously, I am willing to put up with all of the above and more, just for that convenience.

Aside from steadman's, google is my friend in finding proper spellings of words (for example when listening to a lecture recording). Between those two, I've got all my dictionary needs covered.
posted by blindcarboncopy at 12:01 PM on April 29, 2005

I do what nitsuj does. In Firefox, I always have the Google search box visible, so when I want to look up a word I just type it in there. The results page has the link to answer.com which is a good enough dictionary for me. Or if I got the spelling wrong, the results page almost invariably has a link to the right word.

In theory, I could switch the Firefox search box to dictionary.com or something similar and do the search directly, but then I have to switch it back to Google and it is actually more clicks and effort. So I don't do that.

Also, 75% of my dictionary usage is probably for pronunciation rather than meaning. Online is obviously superior here since you can hear the word spoken rather than interpreting the phonetic characters.
posted by smackfu at 12:01 PM on April 29, 2005

I use answers.com (dictionary.com/wikipedia) like everyone because it is ultraconvenient online. It also sometimes gives synonyms/antonyms, text citings and cross-reference to other answer.com entries. Oh and it also has suggestions about possible homonyms/acronyms at the top of the search page where appropriate. Very swish, if modest.
I don't really have the space at this desk but I'd much prefer my Oxford 4th ed. made of dead trees because it has loads more information, particularly on etymology.
In my parallel universe where everything aligns to my whims, I have $1000 per year subscription to the complete Oxford Dictionary online. Pity I can't teleport.
posted by peacay at 12:06 PM on April 29, 2005

Online. Mostly, as others said, for convenience, but also because I like being able to look at several different definitions (M-W, dictionary.com etc) easily
posted by darsh at 12:06 PM on April 29, 2005

Online, unless I have to take the dictionary to someone at work to prove a point, then I use the dictionary that sits on my desk.

Or the usage guide, which is often much more useful.
posted by dpx.mfx at 12:09 PM on April 29, 2005

I have a FireFox extension installed that allows me to right click on any highlighted text to pull up the definition from dictionary.com in a new tab. Combine that with the fact that I barely if ever write journals or letters by hand anymore and that's about all there is to it.
posted by prostyle at 12:10 PM on April 29, 2005

I read the dictionary for fun, so love having a high-quality paper dictionary around for that purpose, or for when I'm not near my computer (say, when I'm in the library).

I use online dictionaries all other times for convenience.

My favorite online dictionary (that doesn't require a subscription) is Bartleby's... because they're so damn thorough. But it only works when you know how to spell the word in question. If I don't know the spelling, or I'm un-sure, I use Merriam Websters online dictionary because it employs fuzzy logic.

Now that OS X Tiger has a dictionary built-in, I'm likely to use that one from here-out.

* crosses fingers that OS X dictionary uses fuzzy logic *

On preview: I also use these online dictionaries' pronunciation tools.
posted by silusGROK at 12:12 PM on April 29, 2005

thomcatspike writes, "When looking at the mobility of it, realize how fewer back problems are created by it."

Check it out... they even have I.
posted by knave at 12:12 PM on April 29, 2005

If I need a quick answer (e.g., double-checking syllable division, confirming spelling of something not in my spellcheck) I'll use an online dictionary.

If I need a more substantive answer (e.g., need to know preferred spelling in Webster's of a word with more than one accepted spelling, interested in all usages of a word or related words, etc.) I reach for the physical book.
posted by scody at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2005

On M-W.com, you can click on the pronunciation and actually hear an unfamiliar word spoken! It can be a lifesaver when you don't want to look like a dimwit speaking...
posted by GaelFC at 12:15 PM on April 29, 2005

When at the office, if I've got a computer in front of me, I use online dictionaries. If I'm in a meeting and don't have a computer in front of me, I rely upon the dictionary/thesaurus card I have for my pda.

At home, I love to break out the books. I like the feel of the paper. I like to see the entries around the one for which I'm searching. I love discovering an unfamiliar word as I flip to the right dictionary section.
posted by onhazier at 12:18 PM on April 29, 2005

Onhazier hit it on the head for me: paper is superior (currently) because paper inject serendipity into the experience.
posted by silusGROK at 12:30 PM on April 29, 2005

I prefer papar, but because I can't afford a copy of the OED (right now, at least) I VPN into work where I can access oed.com for free. Really when it comes right down to it I feel it is better to get the whole story of the word when I don't know it. Aside from learning a lot more from the OED definition I find that it helps me remember the word's meaning better.

For quick quick lookups Tiger's (OSX 10.4) built in dictionary is great!
posted by n9 at 12:38 PM on April 29, 2005

At work I use an online dictionary, but when I'm at home, even if I'm online, I'll use the hardcover dictionary. My connection at home is shamefully slow, so it's just faster to pick up the book.
posted by vignettist at 12:38 PM on April 29, 2005

I do what nitsuj and smackfu do, with Google spellchecking.
posted by agropyron at 12:40 PM on April 29, 2005

Take the following for what it's worth, since I'm a member of the pre-computer generation (well, not literally, but when I took a computer class in college Fortran was the latest thing), but I basically use online dictionaries when I want to cut-and-paste. For just looking up words, I like paper.
posted by languagehat at 12:45 PM on April 29, 2005

...because I can't afford a copy of the OED...I VPN into work where I can access oed.com for free...

Same here. The end result is that the entirety of my dictionary use is online: google for quick-and-dirty lookups and oed.com for more detailed investigations. I pretty much always have a computer with a fast connection readily available, so there's no need for a book.
posted by mr_roboto at 12:45 PM on April 29, 2005

If I'm writing, I'm on my computer... so it would be silly to look up a word on paper when the dictionary is so easy to use online. Plus, I gave up my dictionary when I moved- so heavy!
posted by ThePinkSuperhero at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2005 [1 favorite]

I prefer the online dictionary, but at one of my past jobs, the 'elders' in the office insisted on taking good care of the old, torn, tattered paper OED. There is a history element of a dictionary in that with each new revision, words are added and words are lost. Now, of course the online version could contain many many more words, but you can't stumble upon them as easily as one could with the paper dictionary.

Yet, I'll still use the M-W add-on to the Firefox search box.
posted by clgregor at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2005

I use http://m-w.com and I use it because, unlike a paper dictionary, if I misspell a word, it gives me suggestions for how I may have meant to spell it. Plus I can copy and paste the word rather than having to risk misspelling it when typing :)
posted by terrapin at 12:50 PM on April 29, 2005

I use a paper dictionary for when I play Scrabble. I usually use the define: word feature from Google when I'm already online. There used to be [still is?] an IM bot that you could send words to and it would pop back with a definition. I still have an alias in my email program for an email bot that would do the same thing. If I'm not already online however I'll reach for either the closest dictionary or my dumpster-rescued unabridged multi-volume OED set.
posted by jessamyn at 1:04 PM on April 29, 2005

I used to use OmniDictionary until I began to use Dictionary.com — mainly for synonyms (which is not strictly the purpose of a dictionary, I know). I generally know the spelling of a word off the top.
posted by AlexReynolds at 1:11 PM on April 29, 2005

When my father decided to take up writing as a hobby, I gave him my big old paper dictionary because I use my paper Roget's thesaurus as a pseudo-dictionary. If that doesn't help, then I hit m-w online.
posted by mischief at 1:15 PM on April 29, 2005

I use the internet for everyday dictionary needs, but for foreign languages and IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) transcriptions, I reach for one of the big guys on my shelf. But for the most part, only classical singers and linguists need big dictionaries with IPA transcriptions, and once a good searchable IPA database is available online, I'll probably leave my books behind.
posted by sirion at 1:16 PM on April 29, 2005

In FireFox, you can type "dict [word]" into the toolbar and it gives you the definition from dictionary.com. Too fast and easy to do it any other way.
posted by ludwig_van at 1:29 PM on April 29, 2005

I also do the Google trick for spellchecking and definitions. I used to have a couple bookmarklets that would permit me to select the word, click the bookmarklet, and pop open a dictionary.com definition.
posted by Hankins at 1:50 PM on April 29, 2005

Check it out... they even have I.
Then the friendly ability of finding a word's definition even when misspelled is the main reason I use the Internet’s version.

The previous answers were not I.
posted by thomcatspike at 2:03 PM on April 29, 2005

For personal reference, it's Wikipedia, onelook or google.

For work, I switch between paper and digital.

Paper dictionary is for wandering -- getting lost in words, finding random connections thanks to alphabetic order, thumbing through for inspiration. I love offline genre reference -- Brewer's, the Dictionary of the Occult, Encyclopedia of Animated Cartoons, etc.

Online (dictionary.com, etymology dictionary, mydictionary, onelook.com...) is critical to the way I work. I need pattern matching, rapid fire thesaurus, quick definitions with links all over, multiple source definitions, pronunciations, etc. When I'm billing a client hourly and it's a simple solution rather than something obscure, paper just seems rude.
posted by Gucky at 2:22 PM on April 29, 2005

I use OED online. It's quick, I'm interested in a word's history, and I can't afford the paper one. I'm using it right now.
posted by carter at 2:41 PM on April 29, 2005

"define:parsimonious" in the search bar of Firefox takes about a 1000th of the time that doing the standard alphabetical, manual binary search of the dictionary.
posted by Netzapper at 2:44 PM on April 29, 2005

I use m-w.com or dictionary.com. It's easy as I'm at my computer all day. I actually don't have a paper dictionary available to me (it's in storage). Although, if I did, I'm sure I'd still use the 'net.
posted by deborah at 3:17 PM on April 29, 2005

The nicest thing about an online dictionary is that it often gives suggestions when I misspell a word. With a paper dictionary, I'm out of luck.
posted by rhapsodie at 3:55 PM on April 29, 2005

If I'm at a computer, I use an on-line dictionary. I have a custom keyword, and made a conquery search plugin to use the American Heritage Dictionary.

If I'm home and not at my computer, I'll go to a book (usually either the American Heritage or the Compact OED.)
posted by Zed_Lopez at 4:02 PM on April 29, 2005

I primarily use an online dictionary because of the convenience.

But when I'm not in a rush to find the word I need, I will use the paper dictionary and peruse some other interesting words along the way. Because that, to me, is the best part of a dictionary. I can't quite get that from online dictionaries.
posted by schnee at 4:45 PM on April 29, 2005

dictionary.com for convenience (I'm at my computer a lot), though I keep a paper dictionary on my filebox in case the internet is out. And, for a question you didn't ask, OED online when dictionary.com doesn't have it, because I get it through the school and could never afford to have my own copy at home.
posted by Tuwa at 5:09 PM on April 29, 2005

my dumpster-rescued unabridged multi-volume OED set

*tries not to hate jessamyn*

In FireFox, you can type "dict [word]" into the toolbar and it gives you the definition from dictionary.com.

Dude! I owe you! How are you supposed to find this stuff out?
posted by languagehat at 5:18 PM on April 29, 2005

Speed. I know where my computer is; I rarely know where I placed my dictionary. It takes seconds to hit dictionary.com, rather than browse through pages.

And dictionaries online are updated - my dictionary (published in 1996) does not contain "bootylicious."
posted by itchie at 7:10 PM on April 29, 2005

At work, I use M-W or Google because I am likely writing on the computer, and I don't need to leave my seat (the only paper dictionary is in the office library). At home, I usually use my Sony Clie (with installed American Heritage software), because it's often for looking up an unfamiliar word in a Neal Stephenson novel (his vocabulary is eclectic and sometimes obscure) and I'm in bed, and my PDA is at my bedside, whereas the computer and the paper Webster are in the other room.

And I agree with itchie that wikipedia or Google are great for looking up neologisms.
posted by birdsquared at 8:36 PM on April 29, 2005

At work I correspond with someone in Germany, via email, every 3-4 days. We write in English, but I include a lot of German words just in case of a misunderstanding. (You never think about all these little language nuances: to "fix" a decision can either mean to repair/change the decision, or to hold fast to the original decision . .) Anyway, I use the LEO online dictionary. It's downright awesome. I can easily cross-reference the definitions to find which one I need (the word "terrific" is a good example), cut-and-paste the words with special characters, and the dictionary has a lot of entries, is forgiving with spelling/verb tenses, and their lion icons are cute! The pronunciation soundfiles aren't necessary for email, but are useful otherwise. (The top-level LEO site is cool too.)

For some reason, I don't really trust the online English dictionaries as much as a print edition. I'd rather consult my sixth-grade-spelling-bee-acquired Random House dictionary if I can.
posted by oldtimey at 9:57 PM on April 29, 2005

Kids! Try the Free Dictionary and never look back. I adore it, for too many reasons to list here; just try it. (You can send me flowers and gifts of jewelry later.) This page tells you how to to make it a right-click add-on for either IE or Firefox.

I actually use a different Firefox extension, Define Word, to which I've added the tfd.com dictionary (as per the first comment). This extension comes with several dictionaries to choose from, and I've added more, but 99% of the time, I'm using it to look up something in either tfd, or wikipedia.

I rarely use my heavy paper dictionary any more. In fact, I can't remember the last time I did.
posted by taz at 10:49 PM on April 29, 2005

Onhazier and silusGROK are onto something. The paper dictionary lets you find those great words you aren't looking for. It adds an element of espièglerie.
posted by Panfilo at 11:18 PM on April 29, 2005

Owning a dictionary is a thing of the past for me. I know I have one somewhere, but it's collecting dust.

For me, I find using it faster than looking it up on the web most of the time.

Faster? I type a word into my browser, enter, definition. How could picking up a book and finding the word be any faster. Not a chance.
posted by justgary at 1:24 AM on April 30, 2005

I get the OED through my university, and there is really no comparison between the online OED and any other dictionary, paper or electronic. I don't think there is any one rubric for deciding whether to use paper or electronic dictionaries, at least not for me; but the overall quality of the OED online means it's the only dictionary I'll use.
posted by josh at 5:59 AM on April 30, 2005

I keep an paper copy of Encarta Dictionary close by, but I've only used it once. Not having access to the OED in print or online I've had to make due with other solutions: Up until recently I used jdict and a little OSX service that looks up the selected word.

A month or so ago I started playing with OSX 10.4, and now I habitually Splat-Control-D things. Clearly, my dictionary needs are pretty modest.
posted by majick at 7:18 AM on April 30, 2005

If it's convenience you want, I strongly recommend Wordweb. It's a very light app that sits in your Tray - windows only - sorry. Simply highlight a word in any application and click on the icon in the tray...instant definition - with antonyms, synonyms and more. I use it constantly when surfing.
posted by jikel_morten at 9:02 AM on April 30, 2005

I will use the dictionary applet in gnome (which I think contacts something like 5 or 6 different sites) when I want a quick sense of a word.

When I want to grok the word, I turn to my paper OED. People tend to back off very quickly when you start tossing OED quotes around during flame wars.

I also browse the OED for fun. Especially the etymologies (try looking up 'nice').

I use exclusively paper dictionaries when dealing with languages besides English. I know which publishers and paper dictionaries are considered good. I do not know whether Joe's Anglo-Saxon Page is good or based on bad fantasy novels.
posted by QIbHom at 2:30 PM on April 30, 2005

« Older Lend me some sugar, I AM your neighbor.   |   Where to find a geek/nerd/SUPERSMART guy? Newer »
This thread is closed to new comments.