Monday, April 1, 2013

A review of the Cambridge learner's dictionary

Macmillan Publishers Ltd announced in 2012 that they would no longer be producing printed versions of their learner’s dictionary. This announcement was greeted in various ways by the lexicographical community, with some applauding the decision and others criticising it. Given the present climate of increasing online use, is it still worth publishing paper dictionaries? I was recently given a new learner’s dictionary to review, so I’ll put some thoughts here and leave you to decide what you think.

Cambridge learner’s dictionary (fourth edition) 2012, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.
ISBN: 978-1-107-66015-1

The Cambridge learner’s dictionary is designed for intermediate learners of English as an addition language (EAL), for levels A2-B2 of the Common European Framework of Reference for Languages. I am not familiar with the CEFR, but the website informs me that A1 is a beginners’ level while C2 indicates mastery of a language. The dictionary also indicates the CEFR levels for many entries, so that inexpensive, for example, is labelled as B1, while meeting and melon are labelled as A2. It would be really helpful if future editions could also relate the CEFR levels to other exams such as IELTS and TOEFL. There seems to be no direct equivalence between these tests, but shows roughly how the scores equate.

This dictionary has many excellent features. For example, it highlights “Word partners” (collocations) and provides boxes for “Other ways of saying”, so that learners can use language idiomatically and in context, while expanding their vocabulary. It also indicates “Common learner errors”. For instance, on p. xii we read, “I need some advice. I need an advice. To make advice singular say a piece of advice.” Extra help pages at the end of the dictionary provide further exercises (with answers).

Alternative British and American English spellings are frequently given, with many words (e.g. centre/center) listed at both these variants. Other words (e.g. harbour) appear only with the British spelling, however, making the dictionary occasionally less user-friendly for American English speakers. Only British English spelling is used for definitions and examples, and Australian variants are not included at all. For instance, lolly is defined as "a large, hard sweet on a stick". In Australia, lolly is the term for what is called a sweet in the UK, and it is usually not on a stick.

The example sentences used at many entries are generally helpful, showing how words are used in context and how they can be varied grammatically. For example, at the verb fan we read, "The spectators sat in the bright sun, fanning themselves with newspapers". Phrasal verbs are also included, so that under the entry for fan we find fan out: "If a group of people fan out, they move out in different directions from a single point". There is also a picture of an electric fan and a hand held paper fan.

Labels such as "informal" help the reader to know when to use a word. Synonyms are explained, not merely listed, so that the reader can distinguish between them. This is a helpful feature that is not included in most thesauri.

The colour pictures are attractive and helpful, with up-to-date examples. For example, alongside dress and jacket we find salwar kameez. Some pictures are not to scale, however, or include no point of comparison. Thus we have a good black and white picture of a koala on p. 409, but no indication of how big this animal is. The colour pictures of various sports are also not always easy to follow. Do pitcher and batter, for example, refer to people or equipment?

Some entries are not entirely clear, as in lone, defined as "alone: lone parents". It would be hard for a learner to work out the meaning or use of this word. Similarly, the word partners for love include "brotherly/unconditional love", implying that brotherly and unconditional are synonyms. At other times, more information would be helpful. Mayonnaise is defined as "a thick, cold, white sauce that is made from eggs and oil". It would be useful to add that mayonnaise is often put on salads.

The centre material is generally very good, with "Pieces and quantities" pointing out important collocations such as "a drop of oil" and "a hunk of bread". It is also useful to have UK and US variants for parts of a car, and to point out elsewhere that the UK and US use imperial units. However, some explanations might be confusing: "In the UK, people usually say their weight in stones and pounds. e.g. I weigh nine stone three." Here, the singular use of the word stone should be explained. The "Speaking naturally" section is helpful.

The CD-ROM gives spoken pronunciation and allows the user to record their voice for pronunciation practice. There is also a thesaurus, so you can really expand your vocabulary.

If you want to get the most out of this dictionary, you really should read the section on “How to use this dictionary”. Most users don’t refer to this material, but we sell ourselves short when we fail to use it; it really is invaluable.

I can recommend the Cambridge learner’s dictionary for intermediate learners of English, and the Cambridge advanced learner’s dictionary for those who want a wider range of vocabulary and don’t mind using a larger book. Both are also available online at

Is there still a place for paper dictionaries? I think there is. Not everyone has access to the internet, or to a computer. In those circumstances, a paper dictionary is invaluable.

Let us know what you think by voting in the poll to the right of this post!