The Grammarphobia Blog

Lex preferences

Q: I’m overdue replacing my dictionary (American Heritage, 3d edition), but I’m puzzled about which new one to get. I don’t want another American Heritage because I find it sometimes errs on the side of being descriptive rather than prescriptive. What would you recommend? It can be big and somewhat costly.

A: The three dictionaries I use the most are The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (4th ed.), Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.), and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Of the two American dictionaries, I find that Merriam-Webster’s is clearly more descriptive and accepts as standard English many usages frowned on by the more prescriptive American Heritage.

(A descriptive reference tends to describe the language as it is; a prescriptive one tends to prescribe what it should be.)

Since you want a somewhat prescriptive dictionary, I’d recommend going with the latest American Heritage. And dare I suggest the OED too?

The OED is a feast for language lovers. It includes just about everything – the good, the bad, and the ugly – but it’s careful to let readers know when a word is considered dialect, colloquial, slang, rare, obsolete, archaic, etc.

Although you say your next dictionary can be big and somewhat costly, I assume the 20-volume second edition of the OED would be too big and too costly.

However, the second edition is also available online and on CD-ROM. I’ve used both, but I prefer the online version because it’s updated regularly with draft revisions.

If you’re interested, check out the online OED’s subscription page. (And, yes, I pay for my OED subscription.)

PS: A reader of the blog reminds me that many public libraries offer free access to the online OED. Unfortunately, the library in the small rural town where I live doesn’t.

Buy our books at a local store, Amazon.com, or Barnes&Noble.com.