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No more print dictionaries: a ‘sad day’ or a ‘day of liberation’?

Last week’s announcement that Macmillan won’t in future be publishing dictionaries in book form sparked a lively debate – some of it on this blog, some in the news media, and some in other online forums. The response, it’s fair to say, was mixed. ‘What a sad day’, said one subscriber to a lexicography discussion list. ‘Not at all!’, replied Adam Kilgarriff, ‘it’s a day of liberation from the straitjacket of print!’.

It’s worth examining the arguments against abandoning the print medium. These fall mainly into two categories: practical and cultural. The practical argument is that not everyone in the world enjoys good connectivity, so for some people, printed dictionaries are the only reliable source of reference information. This is true enough, though the picture is more complex than you might expect. The idea that rich countries have great Web connections and poorer countries don’t turns out to be an oversimplification. One colleague working in France told me his students didn’t have good Web connections at home because France has been relatively slow to install high-bandwidth infrastructure. Conversely, David Joffe, whose company has (among other things) published online dictionaries for several African languages, gave an upbeat assessment of the situation in Africa. He outlined the remarkable growth in fibre-optic technology, which will soon bring more than half the continent’s population within 25 km of a cable providing ultra-fast connections  – and that’s without even considering the growth of mobile networks served by satellites. And despite some unevenness, the global picture is one of rapid progress towards a point where fast Web access will become the norm.

This hasn’t stopped some of the doubters dreaming up scenarios in which electronic dictionaries might fail. Are you going to start up your computer every time you need to look up a word? What if there is a power cut and your battery is flat? And so on. But anyone can play that game: what if you forget to put your dictionary in your school bag, what if you drop it in a puddle, what if it’s too heavy to take with you on a plane? This isn’t a fruitful line of argument, but it leads us to the second main objection.

This has a number of strands, but in essence it’s about the dictionary’s role as a familiar and respected cultural artefact. We like handling and delving into physical books, the argument goes, and just think of all the serendipitous discoveries you can make as you browse through your paper dictionary. Furthermore, people trust dictionaries in print form, whereas data found on the Web is seen by some as slightly suspect and inherently less ‘serious’. Not surprisingly, this idea is linked to the supposed unreliability of crowdsourced dictionaries and – inevitably – the Urban Dictionary is held up as an example of the dangers of going down this road. But the medium really isn’t the issue here. There have always been good and bad dictionaries, and few people would argue that resources like the OED are any less valuable for being wholly online. As for crowdsourcing, we have discussed this before, and (as a comment on the Guardian site noted), the Urban Dictionary is an easy target and not necessarily typical of crowdsourced dictionaries: you should ‘dip into it for entertainment’ rather than expecting a serious dictionary.

As for the joys of browsing, there are two counter-arguments. First, browsing is even easier (and often more productive) in an online dictionary where any word in a definition or example sentence is ‘clickable’, and when there are thesaurus links from every word or meaning. More importantly, to quote Anna Braasch (a former President of Euralex) ‘most people are not lexicographers or lovers of words; for them a dictionary is just a tool’. If people want to explore the byways of English, well, there is plenty to engage them in the blog or the BuzzWords column. But they generally go to the dictionary itself to resolve a specific query, rather than to browse.

For me, the best thing about the various debates that followed our announcement is that it has encouraged us to think more creatively about ways in which we can exploit the online medium to make the dictionary even more useful. As for staying up to date, Gill Francis’s latest post reminds us that there is more to this than simply adding interesting new words. Indeed, one critic pointed out, quite fairly, that our 10-year-old definition of the word dictionary could do with some updating (we’re on the case).

For growing numbers of  people, digital media are now the natural channel for finding the kinds of information that dictionaries have traditionally provided. In the end, as David Joffe points out, the decision to move from printed to digital dictionaries ‘isn’t a decision made by publishers but by dictionary users. The bottom line is, if more and more dictionary users are choosing to use online dictionaries rather than buy paper dictionaries, then it is because they find it an overall preferable experience’. I’ll give the last word to Jim Ronald, who told me that when he took a set of paper dictionaries into his class at a Japanese university, he noticed one of his students ‘picking one up and nostagically leafing through it’, before declaring  “Ah, this brings back memories!”.’

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Michael Rundell


  • Welll said, Michael. I recently moved across the country and thinned out my reference shelf before packing it up. I gave about 30 kilos worth of dictionaries, many of which I had contributed to, to the local Literacy Council, rather than pack them up. Most of these dictionaries had sat on the shelf since the day I received them.

    Conversely, the three dictionaries that I have on my laptop are always open, and i consult each of them multiple times a day–and a day hardly goes by that I am not looking at the OED or Macmillan Dictionary online. It is just so much easier and faster to find what I’m looking for, or to zero in on particular kinds of information that span multiple entries. Of course I still have a handful of printed dictionaries that I will probably never part with but I keep them for sentimental, not for practical reasons.

  • Indeed, electronic dictionaries do provide us with more information (more examples, zoomable pictures etc.); search is done much more quickly; you don’t need to carry a bulky book with you to work/school everyday etc. So you see, I do love electronic dictionaries. However, publishers are very slow to digitize their dictionaries, be it online or an app. I have all ESL dictionaries on my iPad (about twenty) that are out there, and I’m still waiting for two Macmillan dictionaries – your Collocations dictionary is only on paper, if I’m not mistaken, and there are no apps of your dictionaries at the moment.

    You’ll be surprised but there’s no wifi at my school – I live in the US.

    With online dictionaries, at some point, publishers have to start charging people for access – the OED, for example, is available through my library.

  • You are right about something: “… the decision to move from printed to digital dictionaries ‘isn’t a decision made by publishers but by dictionary users.”

    I’m an English teacher and I have been using the MED for Learners of American English for most of my classes. What we specially liked about the dictionary (besides of course it’s simplicity to make learners understand) was that the dictionary had a CD-rom version. And at the end, we all ended using the CD-ROM version instead of the printed version, and we even use it more than the on-line dictionary. In class, we used it to check documents written by the students to check pronunciation, spelling, synonyms, etc. We specially liked the feature that with the word document we don’t even have to select the word, we only have to move our mouse. I’m specially using for my pronunciation classes. Writing the word with the on-line version can be done, but it will require more time. So, that’s why weré sad. Will this option ve available in the on-line dictionary, or will we loose all the activities the CD-ROM had?

  • I love my various paper dictionaries, but though I keep them at arm’s length from my desk I find I rarely turn to them: it’s just much quicker to use online resources. I’d still advise anyone learning French to get themselves a copy of Le Robert Micro for the clarity of its definitions and its splendid linking of synonyms, but they’d probably find a smartphone and a dictionary app even better, because they’d actually have it to hand for consultation in moments of need… and it’d be lighter. Ooh, #tempted

  • While I agree that most of the tasks for which one uses a dictionary can be completed online, as an ESL teacher, I need hard copies of dictionaries. I use them extensively in the classroom for vocabulary exercises. We can not replace every task with an online task. My classrooms are not equipped with a computer for every student and I can not imagine that that will be the case in the foreseeable future. So, let us not forget that books do have their uses for something other than paper weights.

  • The day that ‘liberation from the straight-jacket of text’ takes place heralds the day that a different kind of straight-jacket is created. We aren’t yet at the stage where everyone has access to affordable technology. Also, along with the quick access to online /Smart dictionaries which are, granted, a wonderful resource, goes a loss of transferable basic ordering skills and the tactile element which are so important to learners in the early stages.
    Yes, other dictionary publishers should take a leaf out of Macmillan’s book and constantly update their e-resources, but please don’t let them take all the leaves out of the book and render print obsolete!

  • From a practical stand-point, Internet dictionaries are not adequate for me. I am working in Mongolia, and there are no computers in my class-rooms and the Internet is frequently down and normally very slow. Having to use only online references would mean hundreds of lost hours.

  • Alex: Yes, the Collocations data will find its way into our online resources, though almost certainly not as an online Collocations Dictionary. It will probably be integrated in a similar way to the thesaurus. One of the advantages of going online will be to break away from the constraints of the printed book, where you need three volumes: one for dictionary, one for thesaurus and one for collocations dictionary. Online dictionaries will evolve, and we might not even call them dictionaries in a few years time as their range and functionality will be a long way removed from what we have at present.
    The apps are being redeveloped, and should be available some time next year.

    AnaDuron: I agree with you that the CD offers a rich experience, but the CD functionality is quite difficult to replicate online. It’s in our plans for the future, but probably in the medium term rather than the short term.

    Peter and M Larocque: The question about access to technology has been hotly debated since our announcement. Two things are for sure: one is that access to the technology is growing, making online resources available to an ever increasing number of people; and the other thing is that, taken as a group, traditional dictionary purchasers are deserting the bookshops and turning to online resources. Neither of those trends will be reversed. Our belief is that we are publishing for the future, not for the past.

    As for things like basic ordering skills – these can be learnt in all sorts of ways, not solely with a paper dictionary. And if a skill can be learned only with a paper dictionary, then it’s probably obsolescent.

  • What’s the point of discussion this with people who find the advantages of “old-fashioned” paper versions negligible? I’ll just buy the next dictionary from a publisher who still does the paper version.

  • Hello Everyone,

    I must admit that I was also quite sad when I heard the news.
    I know we have to think about the future and not about the past but let’s not go too fast and forget the present.

    I have been teaching English for adults for years now in different countries, and I agree with Kim, M Larocque and others that we don’t always have access to computers and internet in our classrooms. I would also add that I cannot even imagine using a computer in some of my face-to-face lessons. I’ve also had small groups where people definetily did not want to be in a room where there were computers. That’s for “individual work” they told me.
    On the other hand people are usually glad to discover how fun it is to understand a new word using definitions and examples in English (rather than getting the translation in their own language) and sooner or later start asking me which dictionary they should buy. It will be strange recommending dictionaries from other publishers when the one we use together is a Macmillan one…

    But please now that you’ve made this decision, please do continue adding new things to the online versions (e.g. collocations, phrasal verbs).
    That will be of great help now that paper versions are starting to disappear,

  • One good thing about paper dictionaries is that if the company goes bust or changes its mind about access, the dictionary is still there. That can’t be said for Internet material.

  • It is mid-February, 2013. I just got two messages about this November 2012 article. Both messages said I could view each of the two new messages along with all other messages here. I can’t. This is just the article plus comments through the 17th of November (by coincidence, a comment I left). This high-lights the dangers of online resources: They don’t always work as they claim.

  • Paper dictionaries offer one thing NO online dictionary will ever do. Show you the entries preceding and following the search entry. I search the unknown word to discover its various forms suffixes, etc and most inportantly very next word. Online dictionaries never offer this feature. I despise them for it because they dont truly offer a dictionary just single entries, boo & hiss!

  • mevssociety: I’m as fond of paper dictionaries as the next person; I spent much of my working life writing them and have one open on my desk at all times. But while online dictionaries still undoubtedly can and will develop further in terms of search, they can currently offer MORE than any print dictionary. If you look up ‘gone’ in MEDO, for example, you will not only get the entry for ‘gone’ itself; you will also get a list of suggestions for related entries that goes far beyond what a print dictionary can offer, including other homographs for ‘gone’, the verb ‘go’, all the phrasal verbs for ‘go’, plus a whole load of phrases including ‘gone’ and ‘go’ that would not be covered at that entry in a print dictionary (at best they would be in a list of cross references). All of these entries are a single click away. If you actually explored the possibilities of online dictionaries I think you would be very pleasantly surprised.

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