A first look at Merriam-Websters Advanced Learners
John M. Morse
Merriam-Websters Advanced Learners
Springfield, MA. 2008
$34.95, ISBN 978-0-87779-551-3
$29.95, ISBN 978-0-87779-550-6
companion website: http://learnersdictionary.com
This September, Merriam-Webster will publish Merriam-Websters
the first advanced learners
from an American publisher. As this article is being
written, copy is still being edited, and type still being set, but enough work has been completed that we can offer this first look at the new dictionary.
By way of introduction, we can give the following facts. It will be a book of 2,032 pages, 100,000 entries (=
boldface forms), available
in print in both paperback and hardcover editions, on the Web at LearnersDictionary.com,
and as a downloadable e-book. It will include more than 12,000 usage notes and paragraphs and present coverage of 22,000 idioms, collocations,
and commonly used phrases. Perhaps most significantly, it will include 160,000 usage examples to the best of our knowledge, the most usage examples ever offered within the pages of a learners
constructing this new dictionary, we
were of course
mindful of the many fine learners
that have already been published, and we did ask
ourselves what special goals we had for this dictionary. What
that we could do that would particularly appeal to the English-language
learner? We identified five goals:
1. User-friendly symbols and abbreviations.
2. Comprehensive coverage
of American English.
3. Very generous use of sample sentences and other usage examples.
usage guidance, in the form of labels, notes, and paragraphs.
coverage of phrases.
isnt intended to be a complete list of the features of the dictionary. It also includes
many of the features that one sees in other learners
highlighted headwords for core vocabulary items, synonym paragraphs,
pronunciations in IPA, a four-color section, a grammar guide but the five listed above seem especially worthy of note.
User-friendly symbols and abbreviations
Our goal was to make this dictionary as easy to use as possible. To us that meant having as
few symbols and abbreviations as possible, requiring the least amount of grammatical sophistication from the
user, and ensuring that all symbols and abbreviations be as easy to master as possible.
verbs we label transitive and intransitive use, and phrasal verbs are also specifically labeled. For nouns, we label count,
noncount, singular, and plural forms. For adjectives
and adverbs, we label gradable forms with the devices shown below and indicate attributive and
postpositive use with the phrases shown below. Other abbreviations include the common abbr, prep, interj, and conj. And there are six other symbols used whose meaning is obvious in context. The complete set is as follows:
[+ obj] or verb [no obj] or [phrasal verb]
[count], noun [noncount], noun [singular], noun [plural];pl introduces a plural form
Adjectives and adverbs
-er; -est or [more ~; most~]
always used before a noun
not used before a noun
parts of speech
abbr, prep, interj, conj
~ represents the first part of an open compound when inflected forms are being shown
with (used to show collocation information)
or and (between
= alternative equivalent wording (used with example sentences)
/ alternative word (used in example sentences)
restatement (use in example sentences)
help illustrate, here are excepts
from a few typical entries:
2fish verb fishes; fished; fishing
1 a [no obj] : to catch or try to catch fish I
to fish We spent the afternoon fishing for trout. b [+ obj] : to catch or try to catch fish in (a river, stream, etc.) They
fished the stream all morning.
2 [no obj] : to search for something by feeling : to use your hands to try to find something
She was fishing around in her purse
for the keys.
pl tolls [count]
1 a : an amount of money that you are required to pay for the use of a road or bridge We had
to stop to pay the toll. a toll road/bridge [=a
road/bridge that you can only use after paying a toll] b chiefly
US : an amount of money paid for a long-distance telephone call see also toll
2 : the
number of people who
are killed or injured in an accident, disaster, war, etc. usually singular The full/final toll of the disaster is not yet
known. see also death toll
take a toll or take its toll : to have a serious bad effect on someone or something
: to cause harm or damage If you keep working so hard, the stress will eventually take its toll.
[=your health will be harmed] often + on The stress will take its toll on you.
much sunlight can take a (heavy) toll on your skin. [=can harm your skin] Her illness has taken a toll on her marriage.
adj calmer; calmest
: not angry, upset, excited, etc. The
us to remain/stay calm after the fire alarm went off.
Lets try to have a calm
discussion about your grades. My brother is always calm, cool, and collected [=he never gets very upset]
: used to describe weather that is not windy, stormy, etc. a calm
day Theyre predicting calm
winds today a calm sea [=a sea that has no waves or only very small waves]
calmly adv [more ~; most ~] The
coach calmly told her players what to do next.. calmness noun [noncount]
I suddenly had a great feeling of calmness.
Comprehensive coverage of American English
is the first advanced learners
from an American publisher, we took as a very important goal to offer the most comprehensive
coverage possible of American English. At minimum, we
aimed to avoid errors of cultural misunderstanding such as that found in one leading
learners dictionary that equated stock
car racing with demolition derby.
More importantly, we tried to include all vocabulary items from American English that would be appropriate for this dictionary, and
in doing so, we identified many that have been missed from other leading
learners dictionaries. A
sampling from the first half of the alphabet includes deadlock meaning tie; deer tick; DEET; designee; devolve meaning to go
from an advanced state to a less advanced state; double-wide; down-and-dirty; earth tone; elder care;
family leave; fish or cut bait at
fish; folderol; hard-ass; harness racing; haul ass and haul off and at haul; heads-up, noun; hitch meaning period of service in the military; hog heaven; hoist a few at hoist; home fries; horn meaning
telephone; horse race meaning close race; lemon
law; lily white meaning
consisting entirely of white people; link as in sausage link; loaner; loosey-goosey; and
lug nut meaning the
nut that holds the tire onto a car.
aspect of this was to recognize what are the words that arent commonly used in American English and to ensure that they
are properly labeled. A sampling, somewhat shorter,
of words to which we assigned a British
label but often arent so labeled in other dictionaries
includes depute; drover; en bloc; English breakfast; in the event at event; ex
gratia; in the flow at flow; gabble; and put (someone)
out to grass at grass.
regional distinctions are usually indicated simply by means of
labels, but sometimes notes are added to explain the distinctions, as this note at lavatory:
€ In U.S.
English, lavatory is most often used for a room in an airplane. Smoking is not permitted in
the airplane's lavatory. It may also be used for a room in other kinds of public places. the
schools lavatories [=(more commonly) restrooms] In British English, lavatory is most often used for a room in a public place but may also be used for a room in a home.
also use illustrations to show the difference. Hence the illustration at living room
labels the pillows on the sofa as both throw pillow (US) and scatter cushion (British); the illustration at lighting fixtures shows and labels a floor lamp but also includes the British term standard lamp; and the illustration at grooming
items shows both bobby pin (US) and hairgrip
(Brit) for the wire holder, and both barrette
(US) and hair slide (Brit) for
the holder with a clasp.
Very generous uses of example sentences and other usage devices
style rules for all our dictionaries have
always strongly encouraged the use of examples both to convey meaning and
illustrate typical usage. Given that orientation, we felt that this dictionary should
be very well supplied with examples. In fact we went into this believing that well-chosen, carefully crafted examples are the heart and soul of a learners
As a result, we created a learners
with more usage examples between its covers than any other learners
produced to date. Most are full sentences, but many are phrases when that is sufficient to illustrate the usage. The vast majority are made-up sentences, modeled
on actual sentences found in the corpus, but almost always adapted to remove
distracting details and for clarity and concision. There are some quotations, usually from classic works, as the Bible, plays of Shakespeare, the U.S. Constitution, or
other well-known works.
of usage examples incorporate additional features to help learners.
For example, synonymous words and phrases are
cantankerous [=cranky] old man
The car was filthy when he returned it to me,
and to cap it
off [=to top it off], there was almost no fuel left in the tank.
terms and idiomatic phrases are glossed:
a canopy bed [=a bed
that has a piece of cloth above it like a roof]
The old house has gone to rack and ruin. [=has become ruined]
Equivalent expressions are indicated, and sometimes entire clauses and sentences are restated in different, simpler terms:
the canon of American literature = the
American literary canon
was the captain of our team. = She was our team captain.
He was rewarded for his effort. = His
effort was rewarded.
I don't understand the current rage for flavored coffee. [=I
don't understand why flavored coffee is so popular]
Visits are restricted to 30 minutes.
[=visits cannot be longer than 30 minutes]
problem we faced in including 160,000 usage examples was how to set them off. The usual Merriam-Webster practice of enclosing them in angle brackets was
not workable, as 160,000 sets of angle brackets is space-consuming and not very attractive. Our solution was to precede each example with a centered dot and to set off the example in blue type. This has had the additional benefit of
highlighting the defining text set in black and serves to make navigating
within the entry and searching for a specific sense much easier, especially in long multi-sense entries.
Extensive usage guidance, in the form of labels, notes, and paragraphs
In preparing this text, we were
mindful that learners
need more guidance than native speakers in understanding register, idiomatic use, and attitudes about
language. Traditionally we handle such matters with italic labels before the
definition, notes set off with a dash after the definition,
or paragraphs in which usage is described. For this dictionary we used all of these devices, only much more liberally. The following entries illustrate the approach.
[no obj] formal + literary : to continue for a long time without activity or progress in an unpleasant or unwanted situation usually + in
The bill languished in the Senate for months.
2 Brit slang : extremely drunk get legless on lager
usage Like has many uses in informal speech,
especially in the speech of young people.
is commonly used to emphasize a word or phrase He was, like, gorgeous.
It is used in a way that shows that you are not sure or confident about what you are saying
Her father is, like, a scientist or something.
In very informal speech in U.S. English, it is used with the verb be to say what someone thinks,
says, etc. She was telling me
what to do and I
was like, [= I
was thinking] Mind your own business.
She was, like, are you sure you want to do this? and I
was like Yeah, why not? [= she said, Are you
sure you want to do this? and I
said, Yeah, why not? Hes always criticizing everyone, but its like, Who
cares what he thinks? [= hes always criticizing everyone but no one cares what he thinks.
2 informal used in an exaggerated way to emphasize a statement or description that is not literally true or possible
Steam was literally coming out of her ears. [= she
was very angry]
4 always used before a noun : not very important There are a
few little problems that have to be dealt with.
sometimes used in an ironic way to describe something important Theres just one little problem we havent discussed; the company is going bankrupt!
locks [plural] literary + humorous : a persons hair
looking glass noun
[count] old-fashioned : 1MIRROR
+ offensive : a hospital for people who
are insane € Loony bin is usually used in a joking way
noun [noncount] disapproving
+ often humorous : money or profit
often used in the phrase filthy lucre
Extensive coverage of phrases
Finally, we wanted to give very extensive coverage of phrases, whether
as common collocations (usually shown in usage notes and examples but set off in bold italic), idiomatic
phrases requiring definition (appearing at the ends of entries or as own-place entries), or simply collocational use of prepositions and adverbs (shown as usage notes). The following examples illustrate how we did this:
as late as :
as recently as used in referring to a time that you think is surprisingly recent
be laughing Brit, informal
dont make me
have to laugh € If you say you have to laugh about
lay of the land
US : the arrangement of the different parts in an area of land
often used figuratively It takes time for
new employees to get the lay of the land [=to learn
how things are done].
called also (Brit) the lie of the land
: having the
same height as something else usually + with
The water was level with my waist.
chiefly Brit : to make it possible for two organizations or groups to work together
usually + with or between
lighten up [phrasal verb] informal : to become more
relaxed and informal
1 a [count]
: a printed list usually + of
obj] : to stay at a place for a short period of time ... often + with The guests lodged with their
3 [+ obj] : to present (something, such as a complaint) to someone so that it can be considered
often + against
long haul noun [noncount] 1 : a long journey or distance
2 chiefly US
: a long period of time usually used in the phrases for the long haul
the long haul
loop : a
group of people who
know about or have influence or control over something usually in the phrases in the loop and out of the loop
: to have a strong desire for something usually + after
Shes been lusting after [= craving] that job for months. sometimes + for investors lusting
for profits sometimes followed by to + verb a general who
As a final remark, it should
be said that this new learners
makes use of many of the traditional devices of
Merriam-Webster native speakers dictionaries, but
also pushed us to create new devices to meet the needs of learners
and to do a new kind of defining that put a great premium on simple and concise language. One editor working on the project expressed the challenge
The biggest challenge
of this book has been the need to draw on our previous lexicographical experience
and training while at the same time forgetting all about it
. Weve had to
learn to prioritize simplicity and clarity over absolute
precision and accuracy, which was a challenge
for many of us. And yet the fact that we were reluctant to sacrifice accuracy also served us well.
Im hopeful that what we came up with is something that is clear and simple as well as accurate and precise.
p.586 fabulous ●