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May 4th, 2005

Dictionary recommendations

by Barbara Wallraff

Suzanne Shoemaker, of Macomb, Mich., writes: “I’d love it if you could celebrate graduation season by recommending some good dictionaries for high-school and college students. My old Webster’s Collegiate is outdated, but it was the most useful graduation gift I received.”

Dear Suzanne: What a good idea! If you want to give a graduate the most useful possible gift nowadays, keep in mind the huge role computers play in young people’s lives and education. A printed dictionary that weighs a few pounds and takes up two or three inches of shelf space makes a handsome gift, no doubt about it. Do choose a hardcover, and make sure you’re buying the dictionary’s latest edition. But new graduates are likely to get at least as much use out of an electronic version of the dictionary that they can install on their computer -- or even on their personal digital assistant or smartphone. For about the same price as a hardcover dictionary alone, you can also give the dictionary, and maybe a thesaurus too, in electronic form.

Sorry if this reads as though your paper has mixed up Word Court with someone else’s technology column, but ... If your new graduate has a Mac computer, you’ll need to find out if the Mac is brand-new or if its operating system will be upgraded to OS X Tiger. If the Mac does have this new operating system, I suggest you give your graduate something besides a dictionary. That’s because OS X Tiger comes pre-loaded with the second edition of the New Oxford American Dictionary, which itself is brand-new, plus an Oxford thesaurus. The New Oxford American Dictionary is an innovative, smart reference work. The lowest price I could find online for the printed edition was $35.51; included with the book is an electronic version that can be downloaded into a PDA or smartphone, though not a computer. Hello, future, here we come!

What about a dictionary to install on an older Mac or a Windows computer? I’ll admit that Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate is far and away America’s best-selling dictionary. Online merchants offer the current edition, the 11th, with a CD-ROM (which works with both kinds of machines) plus a year’s subscription to more resources online for around $17. But the Collegiate is famous, or notorious, for defining words as they are used by ... well, anybody. If you’d like your new graduate to know that the verb “impact” horrifies many educated speakers of English when it means “to have an effect on,” or if you want her or him to know why “hopefully” is another troublemaker -- and a zillion more things like that -- you’ll be better off with the American Heritage College Dictionary, 4th edition. This, too, including a CD-ROM, is available online for around $17 -- and the printed dictionary without a CD-ROM costs only 50 cents or a dollar less, so the book plus CD-ROM is a good deal. (Warning: If you shop online, use the ISBN, 0618453008, or you may never find the right edition.)

For anyone who’s really gung-ho on computers and unsentimental about ink on paper, the best deal is a downloadable version of the larger American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, 4th edition. This goes for $26.21 (that’s a temporary sale price) from www.ereference.com. It’s a computer download only -- so there’s nothing to gift-wrap. But long after the wrapping would have been thrown away, the words, their definitions and even pronunciations aloud will remain in all their glory.

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

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