Best English Online Dictionaries – a Review of 7 Top Names

By |2018-10-19T13:17:32+00:0025th July 2018|English|

I’ve extensively used online dictionaries, mainly dictionary.com (~ 80 percent) and Cambridge English Dictionary (~ 20 percent), to improve my pronunciation of more than 3,400 words and transfer more than 7,500 words from passive to active vocabulary.

I started with dictionary.com. Much later, when I tried Cambridge English Dictionary, I realized that dictionary.com, but for pronunciation, wasn’t the best overall option. It struck me then that many more users of online dictionaries may not be using the best dictionary and I decided to write a review of main dictionary brands at some point in future. And here it is.

In this post, I’ve reviewed (with ratings out of 10) well-known online dictionary brands on parameters that are usually the most valuable to users.

If you’re one of the persons who is interested in just the ratings – and not details – here is a summary:

Online dictionary reviewAnd the best two dictionaries for learning pronunciation (because they contain non-phonetic form as well) are:

Best dictionaries for pronunciation

What parameters would be valuable to users of online dictionaries?

Is history of a word important to you? I guess most don’t care when and how the word originated. I don’t, at least.

Do you care for pronunciation? Certainly more than history.

People care the most for meaning(s) of the word and how it is used in sentences. Pronunciation too is a popular destination. People also care about idioms and phrasal verbs associated with the word. Some also look for synonymous. And last, because it’s all online, people want a good user experience. User experience, however, is worthless if a dictionary misses out on core offering of meaning, examples, pronunciation, and phrasal verbs & idioms.

With that in mind, I’ve taken following parameters to evaluate online dictionaries in this post:

  • Meaning and synonyms
  • Example sentences (also called usage)
  • Pronunciation
  • Phrasal verbs and idioms
  • User experience

Most dictionaries do fine on ‘Meaning and synonyms’, and therefore this parameter isn’t a big differentiator unless you search for words that can be used in multiple ways. Here is an example of word ‘sink’ that can be used in many, many ways (the screenshot captures only few):

Good dictionaries not just cover all the use cases of such words, but they also do a good job of presenting so much of information in a user-friendly manner.

‘Example sentences’ can be the biggest differentiator between dictionaries because they’re important and, second, some dictionaries really struggle to put together enough examples. (Examples are arguably the most important feature of any dictionary. They teach you how words are actually used in sentences, the building blocks of writing or speech.)

User experience broadly comprises of:

1. Autosuggest

Does the search bar in the dictionary autosuggests when you start typing a word?

2. Potency of dictionary’s search engine

2A. How common are error messages (mainly for phrases and idioms)?

Does the internal search algorithm of the dictionary catches the right word even if you don’t key in the word/ phrase correctly? Remember, what happens if you key in a wrong search string on Google. It doesn’t show an error. It shows what it thinks you intended to search.

Well, we aren’t expecting the same level of sophistry from dictionaries, but fewer error messages would make for a good user experience. Error messages are relatively more common while searching for phrases and idioms. If you don’t recall the exact phrase or idiom you’re looking for – which is often the case – you may type in a close string of words in the dictionary’s search box.

For example, if I search ‘learn to walk before running’ in dictionary.com, I get following message:

Most other dictionaries too don’t show the idiom ‘learn to walk before you run’ that I was looking for. One notable exception is Oxford Living Dictionaries (one of the dictionaries reviewed in this post):

It shows result for ‘walk before one can run’, which is the same as ‘learn to walk before you learn’. Having said that, this dictionary too fails on few close-but-not-exact strings.

2B. Does the dictionary suggest the word you intended to search in case you don’t type in the correct string?

There is, however, a situation between no-show (error message) and getting the desired result in case you don’t type in the correct string. Some dictionaries suggest few options what they think is close to what you’re looking for. Here is an example from dictionary.com:

It suggests ‘leave a bad taste in one’s mouth’ which is what I was looking for. Here there is just one suggestion (which happen to be the correct one), but sometimes there could be few.

Let’s start with the first dictionary.

1. Oxford Living Dictionary

My rating

9.5/ 10

User experience

It does the best job of user experience.

Autosuggest: Yes

Internal search engine: One of the better ones

Other:

  • Examples are neatly arranged in expandable tabs after each meaning, the best I’ve seen.
  • Surprisingly, pronunciation is at the bottom of the page. Also, British and American pronunciations are not on the same page and need to be accessed through different pages. Both are minor itches, though.

Expandable tabs, which makes the dictionary look compact and neat, look something like this:

You can click these tabs to unfurl the huge repository of examples for each use case of a word.

Examples

This dictionary does the best job of examples too. They provide plenty of examples, by and large the most for the dictionaries covered in this post.

They could’ve, however, improved user experience in examples by highlighting (bold or underline) the word in question for quick pinpointing. Cambridge English Dictionary does this.

Pronunciation

Audio of the pronunciation is a must in any dictionary, but the non-phonetic form too is helpful. While most dictionaries carry phonetic form, only few (dictionary.com, for example) carry non-phonetic form.

Pronunciation comes right at the end of the page. The dictionary has both American and British pronunciations, but they need to be accessed through different pages, which doesn’t matter much to most because people mainly refer to one type of dictionary – British or American. This dictionary, however, lacks in non-phonetic pronunciation.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

True to its wont of offering wide variety of examples, the dictionary provides surprisingly high number of examples even in idioms and phrasal verbs. (When it comes to idioms and phrasal verbs, almost all dictionaries are thin on examples.)

2. Cambridge English Dictionary

My rating

8.5/ 10

User experience

Autosuggest: Yes

Internal search engine: One of the better ones

Other:

  • Toggle tabs right at the top helps you jump between meaning of the word and examples.

Here is how toggle tabs look:

Examples

By and large, words have lots of examples to go with. The dictionary, however, has far fewer examples for idioms and phrasal verbs, which is not a big irritant because most users are looking for words alone.

Pronunciation

This dictionary has both British and American pronunciations right at the top in the audio and phonetic form. Non-phonetic form, however, isn’t there.phonetic vs. non-phonetic form of pronunciation(For most people, non-phonetic form is far more intuitive than phonetic form to figure out pronunciation of a word. I learnt pronunciation through listening and non-phonetic form and found them to be very effective.)

Idioms and phrasal verbs

If a word has phrasal verbs and idioms (not all words have phrasal verbs and idioms), links to them are listed at the bottom of that word page. You may click these links to explore them in detail.

3. Longman

My rating

7.5/ 10

User experience

Longman loses little bit on user experience.

Autosuggest: No

Internal search engine: Average

Other:

  • Scrolling the page can be bit overwhelming for common words such as ‘roll’ which have lots of use cases. At times, too much information has been packed in.
  • Toggle tabs help you jump between examples, synonyms, and origin.
  • It doesn’t neatly categorizes phrasal verbs and idioms.

Examples

The dictionary offers an impressive array of examples.

Pronunciation

You can listen to both American and British pronunciations right at the top. The non-phonetic form (it has phonetic form) would have made it probably the perfect pronunciation destination.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

They’re there, but not categorized well.

4. Dictionary.com

My rating

7.5/ 10

User experience

Autosuggest: No

Internal search engine: Average

Other:

  • Its overall look & feel is average, few notches below Cambridge and Oxford dictionaries.
  • Toggle tabs right at the top helps you jump between examples, synonyms, and word origin.

Examples

The dictionary has decent number of examples. One or two examples are mentioned along with the meaning of the word and the rest are clubbed together under ‘Examples’ tab.

For the word ‘rough’, this is how the example (usually one) appears alongside the meaning:

And this is how many are bunched together further down in the post:

If a word is used in multiple ways, then you’ll have to make some effort to understand which example corresponds to which use for examples clubbed under the ‘Examples’ tab. Oxford does the best job of this where they segregate examples as per the use of the word under tabs we saw earlier.

Having said that, I don’t see this as a problem.

Pronunciation

You can find both British and American pronunciation at the same place right at the top. (However, if they’re pronounced the same way, you’ll find it listed only one.) The dictionary really stands out on pronunciation front as it also offers non-phonetic form of pronunciation, which is far more intuitive than the phonetic form.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

You’ll find few idioms and phrases after the meaning of the word in its different forms (noun, verb, adjective etc.). Plenty more of them will come at the bottom of the page.

5. Collins

My rating

7.5/ 10

User experience

Average

Examples

It contains good number of examples.

Pronunciation

Regular: audio and phonetic.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

It provides links to related idioms and phrasal verbs. However, examples here aren’t as rich as in, say, Oxford Dictionary we covered earlier.

6. Merriam-Webster

My rating

5.5/ 10

User experience

Autosuggest: Yes

Internal search engine: Average

Other:

  • Text seems bit cramped because of lack of enough white spaces. You’ve to really strain your eyes when the word (such as ‘roll’) has plenty of meanings.
  • The references that accompany examples cover too much space. The dictionary can do a better job of it.

Examples

Fewer examples. All clubbed together in the end similar to dictionary.com

Pronunciation

Strong on pronunciation!

Like dictionary.com, this too provides pronunciation in audio as well as non-phonetic form.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

Idioms and phrasal verbs lack examples. There aren’t any for words I checked. Here is an example for the word ‘walk’:

7. Macmillan Dictionary

My rating

3/ 10

The content on this dictionary is quite thin. Even the meanings of words are unusually brief.

User experience

Overall user experience is just OK, but user experience is inconsequential if the core offering of the dictionary isn’t good, which is the case with Macmillan Dictionary.

Autosuggest: Yes

Internal search engine: Average

Other:

  • You can’t see the synonyms on the same page as the word. The link takes you away to another page.

Examples

Only few examples. The word ‘serendipity’, for example, has no examples.

 

In contrast, the same word has quite a few on Cambridge Dictionary:

Pronunciation

Regular: audio and phonetic.

Idioms and phrasal verbs

Links to idioms and phrasal verbs have been provided at the bottom of the page. However, they carry only few examples.

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