Vocabulary Building: Learner’s Dictionaries

Learner’s dictionaries are monolingual (English-English) dictionaries with extended entries that provide information on word frequency, pronunciation, meaning, context, usage, collocations (words that often appear together), and synonyms. This guide highlights these features in various learner’s dictionaries and offers recommendations for using learner’s dictionaries when writing.

Note: There is no perfect learner’s dictionary for everyone. Use the one that you are most comfortable with and suits your needs.


Samples from various learner’s dictionaries

Oxford Advanced Learner's DictionaryCollins COBUILD Advanced Dictionary of American EnglishCollins American Dictionary OnlineLongman Dictionary of Contemporary EnglishOxford Learner's Dictionary

Click to view full image in a new window. Some (not all) features are circled in colors that match the features described below.

Pronunciation is transcribed using the International Phonetic Alphabet, which has a one-to-one correspondence between symbols and sounds. You can also listen to words or sentences using online dictionaries. However, be sure to note whether a British or American pronunciation is used since they can differ.

Frequency refers to how often a word appears in a dictionary’s database and can be used to determine whether or not to use a word in a certain context. Each dictionary determines frequency differently; some use a corpus, which searches word frequency in a collection of authentic texts, others use an aggregated word list that may also take a word’s usefulness into account. See our handout on using a corpus for more information.

Grammatical information can appear as word forms, word classes, and grammatical structures. This information should be read for each definition and used in combination with examples to gain a better understanding of what structures have which meanings. For example, “divide” has multiple meanings, but only reading the first definition or only one example leads to the possibility of generating a grammatical sentence with an unintended meaning.

Definitions are numbered and paired with grammatical information. This helps distinguish how grammatical structure can change the meaning of a sentence. Read all of the definitions to get a better sense of how the examples fit.

Examples use authentic language to show how the word is used in context for a specific definition. Sometimes these include useful word combinations. Example sentences can also be used to test whether a synonym has a similar meaning and structure.

Thesaurus info helps vocabulary development by providing synonyms and antonyms but should be used carefully. No two words have exactly the same meaning so synonyms should also be looked up. Even if the definitions of two words are similar, their word class or the context in which they appear may be different.

Collocations are natural sounding word combinations, such as verbs + prepositions or verbs + nouns. Learner’s dictionaries use corpora to list frequent collocations and match these with one of the definitions provided. This is one of the most useful features of learner’s dictionaries and makes writing in new contexts easier.

Idioms are sometimes provided and are important to distinguish from a word’s grammatical use, where meaning is predictable. Idioms are often cultural and cannot always be understood literally.

Context labels and other usage notes take advantage of a learner’s dictionary’s corpus to identify any genre (e.g., business, medicine, law), style (e.g., informal, technical), or English dialect/accent (British or American) that a word most frequently appears in. Some words have new definitions when in another context.

Usage tips when writing

Identify the part of speech of your word before consulting a learner’s dictionary. Scanning definitions for a particular part of speech will help avoid the problem of being overwhelmed when finding a word with many definitions and lengthy usage notes.

Skim all the word’s definitions before setting the dictionary aside. This is a good way to become aware of other collocations in a structured way (learner’s dictionaries often pair collocations with definitions). Quickly checking all the definitions also decreases the chance of unintentionally using a word incorrectly.

Compare your word’s usage with the dictionary’s grammatical structure. If the word does not appear as the same part of speech in a sentence or has unexpected collocates, readers may misinterpret the sentence. This is especially true of verbs; their meaning can change when paired with different prepositions.

Check the word’s context to make sure it has the appropriate meaning and collocates. Even with the same grammatical structure, technical jargon may differ across disciplines. For example, a word in Engineering may not have the same meaning in Medicine. Some grammatical structures are unique to British English, which may be indiscernible from American English in example sentences. If a content word (e.g., nouns and verbs) does not appear in a learner’s dictionary, it may be specialized or uncommon; consult resources specific to your field.

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