I don't care how good a writer you are, at some point you are going to need dictionary. Whether you need to check the meaning of a word, or the sort of context in which it’s used, or simply to double-check how it is spelt, you will want to use a dictionary. The question is, which one?
There are many dictionaries available, and even the standard ones like the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) tend to have several editions aimed at different audiences or covering different things.
Fortunately, you can try before you buy in effect, by using them online. In fact, you may find the online experience so good that you decide to not bother with owning one yourself at all. Personally, I like to have a physical dictionary in case I can’t gain access to the internet when I need to, and because I enjoy seeing other words I haven’t come across before.
The very best dictionary in my opinion is the complete Oxford English Dictionary. It gives full explanations of what words mean, and how they are used, and full etymological information as well, including extracts from the sources in which the word in question was first used.
There is also a protracted process by which new words make their way into the dictionary. This has the advantage that the dictionary carries real authority, and the disadvantage that very new words cannot be found in its pages. (The Second Edition, for example, was published in 1989.)
The OED is by far the definitive dictionary on the whole, though. But this comes at a price: a hefty £5000 for the print edition.
If you are a member of a library which subscribes to the OED, you can gain access to the online version free of charge.
A second-best is the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which comprises two volumes. This is not cheap, being priced at £95 for the print edition and £50 for the CD-ROM edition. It has served me well over the years, and I didn’t even have to pay for it. I was sent it free for trying out a book club. I belonged to the book club for a number of years. The good thing about those kind of offers is that even if you decide you don’t want to continue to be a member you are (usually) allowed to keep the free gift they send you when you first join or with your first order.
You can access the Oxford dictionary on the web.
Another excellent dictionary is Chambers. This is not as detailed as the ones mentioned so far, but is perfectly adequate for most purposes – as proven by the fact that many cryptic crossword compilers use Chambers as their main source of (unusual) words. It costs around £50.
You can access Chambers on the web.
American readers would probably prefer the Merriam-Webster dictionary. This has American usage and spellings. It’s worth noting, by the way, that some online dictionaries, such as the Oxford one, gives you the option to look up the word in an American dictionary or even to have it translated into another language.
Of course, you can buy smaller editions of most dictionaries. As well as being cheaper, they are easy to carry around – and for most purposes will be perfectly OK.
Finally, if you want to know the meaning of the latest word on the street, or even to define one of your own, the Urban Dictionary is your first port of call. Be warned though: some of the language used in the definitions is not what you want your children to see.