Oxford Dictionaries Online, Part 1: Free for You and Me

by Erin Brenner on July 15, 2010

Recently the AskOxford Web site was revamped as Oxford Dictionaries Online. Oxford kindly gave me a tour and let me play around with the site a bit. There’s so much to the site, that I’ll review it in two parts: the site overall and the free side today and the pay side next week.

The site now has both a free side and a subscriber side. The two versions are similarly designed, but in free section, you don’t see any of the subscription tabs or pages. If you’re going to stick with the free version, you won’t run into those annoying pages that refuse you access because you haven’t paid for it.

On both sides of pay wall, you have access to 350,000 definitions and entries. The experience is a bit flatter on the free side, but it still offers a lot of Oxford’s scholarship. The site is updated quarterly, particularly the example sentences and idiomatic uses. The result is that the site will always be more up to date than a print edition.

You also get a choice of US English or World English. World English is chiefly made up of British English, though in the advanced search you can narrow your search by region, such as Australian, Canadian, Indian English, and South African. Switching between the types of English is easily done by going to the home page and selecting the desired type. On the pay side, you can listen to pronunciations of defined terms; if you’ve selected US English, you’ll hear a voice with an American accent. Select World English, and you’ll hear pronunciations with a British accent.

The Free Side

The best thing about the free side of Oxford Dictionaries Online (ODO) is that you have access to 350,000 terms defined through the renowned Oxford scholarship. How can a word geek resist? In addition to the definition, each term has a sentence exemplifying its use.

In addition to the dictionary section, the free side offers several sections:

  • Better writing: help in grammar, spelling, punctuation, practical writing, and more. While not exhaustive, what’s offered is solid. The grammar section includes brief explanations of split infinitives, dangling participles, and the difference between that and which. The that/which discussion comes from the British perspective (that there isn’t a difference) but does note that the “preferred” American style differentiates the two. I’d say American style goes beyond preferring to a solid rule, but at least the Brits acknowledge that we have a difference.
  • World of words: information on dictionaries (particularly how ODO works), language, and words, plus an FAQ section.
  • Puzzles and games: several games to exercise your word knowledge.

I’m told the free site may offer social media tools at some point. Right now, you can get the Word of the Day by RSS feed, but I would love to see more options, such as social sharing (Twitter, Facebook, Digg, etc.), a forum area for word geeks to discuss their passions, or a blog that digs deeply into words.

Right now the free side doesn’t display ads, but don’t expect it to stay that way. All that scholarship has to be paid for somehow. It’s the way of free information. But knowing Oxford, they will be tasteful, perhaps even useful ads.

If all you use the free side of ODO, you’ll get a lot. If you opt for the subscription, however, you’ll get a whole world more. I’ll review the pay side next time. Stay tuned!

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