Advanced Learner's Dictionaries Comparative Review

Titles: Macmillan English Dictionary for Advanced Learners
Cambridge Advanced Learner's Dictionary
Consists of: Dictionary
Reviewed by: Alex Case
Review date: April 2003

A modern Advanced learner's dictionary is an immensely complicated thing, and I have always had difficulty explaining why the Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary was my personal favourite, and so was always loath to recommend it to others in case my judgement was based too much on subjective factors. I have therefore taken the opportunity of two major new dictionaries coming out in less than a year to have a more objective look.

First impressions still count, and my first impression of the Macmillan one was that it was just that little bit too big and unwieldy, although on closer inspection they both seem to be the same size (1600 pages more or less). As well as over 100,000 references each, both of the dictionaries include substantial guides to using the dictionaries and the information that is given in each entry. These are very similar, but I think the Macmillan explains the abbreviations it uses in a slightly more user-friendly (if longer) way. Both dictionaries also have sections of colour pictures in the centre and an explanation of pronunciation symbols used. Both pronunciation guides are based on the most commonly used phonemic chart symbols, and avoid all but the most important diacritics.

As well as these sections, the Cambridge dictionary also has the traditional lists of country names, first names, irregular verb forms and units of measurement. Other features in the Cambridge include a guide to the regular verb tenses and a guide to how symbols (e.g. @) are named and pronounced. More usefully, there is an "Idiom finder" to help you find which key word to look for longer idioms under. The Macmillan dictionary avoids all of these and just gives a list of the 2,500 word "Defining vocabulary" used in the dictionary definitions. I have a feeling that both the "Idiom finder" and the "Defining vocabulary" are as likely to be used by students as a list of things to look up and learn as the purpose they were designed for- but at least that means they might get used!

In the centre of each dictionary is something students are can read when they are stuck on a train with just their dictionary on them. The Cambridge one has fairly traditional but easy to understand and useful "Study Sections" on things like Money and Letter Writing, while the Macmillan has a more essay-format section that starts with "Numbers" but moves onto somewhat involved sections on Pragmatics and Spoken Discourse.

Looking at the actual entries in the dictionaries, the amount of information they provide on the words given is quite scary! They both provide the traditional information on pronunciation, parts of speech, different meanings, collocations, fixed expressions, formality, synonyms and antonyms, irregular forms, specialized contexts (e.g. Law), variety of English (e.g. Am. Eng.) and alternatives in other varieties; as well as cross-referencing to the picture pages and other words, and providing example sentences. Both books also cover possible learner errors. In addition to all the above, the Macmillan has stars to shows frequently occurring words and shaded boxes showing common collocations and more encyclopaedia-style notes on origin of words etc.

The entries in both tomes can be so long (e.g. nearly 4 pages for "get"), that both books have devised new ways of helping you find your way quickly around them. The Macmillan provides a mini-contents list at the beginning of long entries, but I preferred the Cambridge system of boxed "Guidewords" such as synonyms at the beginning of each part of the entry.

Generally, on opening the book at random the pages in the Cambridge seems more densely packed, and the Macmillan makes more use of shaded boxes etc. to break up the page. It is difficult to tell which covers more words, as it was possible to find examples in each of idiomatic expressions etc. not covered by the other. The Macmillan makes more of a selling point in the Foreword of covering complications of the uses of commonly occurring words, whereas the Cambridge boasts more of being bang up-to-date with expressions like "clickable", but it is difficult to know how much that is reflected in the content. The fact that the Cambridge has bigger numbers on the back ("170,000 words, phrases and examples") is also unlikely to mean much. Obviously both teams of writers have had to make difficult decisions in order to stop the books becoming too big, such as leaving some possible words out- especially as both publishers have made the decision to avoid abbreviations as much as possible (for example "verb" and "noun" are always written out in full). Macmillan have taken an original approach to this problem by having separate American and British editions, each covering only the vital words and pronunciations of the other variety. They have also made the choice to only give variations in pronunciation where they are wide enough to mean difficulties in understanding. In comparison, the Cambridge seems more "Oxbridge", with separate phonetic symbols for some American sounds and the American pronunciation always given after the British.

Perhaps influenced by the publisher's blurb, I did get the impression that Advanced level students could almost sit down and use the Macmillan as a textbook - learning the frequently occurring starred words, reading the shaded boxes for interest, following on from one cross-reference to another, etc. All of these features do take up space, though, which I suspect means that the Macmillan does not have quite as much coverage in the "look up a difficult word" department. Even after all the above analysis, I must admit that these impressions are somewhat subjective, and all I can really say with complete certainty is that both of the dictionaries cover both of the above uses well enough for all but the fussiest Advanced or Proficiency student. What is most important is that we English teachers show these lovely new products to our students, and get them to go out and buy one and then use it!

TEFL.net ESL Reviews & ArticlesAlex Case has worked as an EFL Teacher, Teacher Trainer, Director of Studies and EFL Editor in Turkey, Thailand, Spain, Greece, the UK and Japan. Alex Case is Reviews Editor of TEFL.net.