English language Usage

What’s the right dictionary for me?

Q: What is the best dictionary to purchase? I’d like to buy a nice hard-bound dictionary for my family. Could you suggest a quality edition with good etymological references?

A: I like both The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, the big fourth edition, and Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, the eleventh edition.

[2012 update: American Heritage is now available in an updated fifth edition.]

The dictionary you choose depends to some degree on what you’re using it for. I find myself using American Heritage a lot because the entries are so interesting and the usage notes are very helpful. It’s an entertaining dictionary if you’re into looking things up!

On the other hand, Merriam-Webster’s is the “house” dictionary of many publishing companies, newspapers, magazines, and so on. If you’re writing for them, that would be a good dictionary to have from a style point of view (consistency of capitalizations, abbreviations, and so on). It is also less conservative from a usage point of view.

I realize this isn’t a definitive answer. So here’s one: If you’re buying a dictionary to use for work or writing and you need fast, authoritative answers that don’t go into a lot of detail, get Merriam-Webster’s. If you want to be entertained and edified as well, get American Heritage.