Online Grammars And Dictionaries Research Paper

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Before discussing online dictionaries and grammars, we need to define what these are and how they are produced (and used) in their ‘non-online’ form. A dictionary is a reference book used (a) to look up the meaning of a word or a phrase, in a monolingual dictionary, or (b) to look up the translation of a word or phrase in another language. For example, if you want to know the meaning of the word blockbuster, you would consult an English dictionary; alternatively, if you want to know the translation of this word into French, you would consult an English–French dictionary. A grammar is a description of a language. For the purpose of this research paper we shall discuss descriptive (or reference) grammars, i.e., books that describe the grammatical system of a language: the syntax, morphology, and phonology—but much of what we shall say also applies to teaching grammars, i.e., books that are intended as learning tools.

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Grammars and dictionaries have a number of things in common. They try to explicate aspects of a language (meaning of words, explanations of the structure of the language) in a written form. They also refer to other parts internally; typically, dictionaries contain cross-references to other parts of the same book to further elaborate the meaning, or aspects of the meaning of a word or a phrase. Reference grammars typically abound in cross-references to related issues discussed elsewhere in the book.

1. Problems With Traditional Grammars And Dictionaries

Because of their intended use as reference tools, dictionaries and grammars must be easily accessible. In the case of dictionaries, this is not a problem. After all, they list all the words alphabetically, so users will usually be able to find what they need. But sometimes searching for what you want is a bit more involved, especially looking up the meaning of an expression. For example, if you want to know the meaning of an expression such as pull your socks up, do you look under pull or under socks? In dictionaries of English, the entry for pull is quite big, so searching there is quite a task, so you might first want to look under socks. But if the expression is not listed there, you need to go through the columns of text where all meanings and uses of pull are described.

Another problem for explanatory monolingual dictionaries is that, in many cases, a word is explained more easily by a picture. Also most dictionaries contain several pictures (indeed, there are so-called picture dictionaries, in which virtually all entries are illustrated with a picture) but pictures also take up a relatively large amount of space, so the publisher needs to be as economical as possible and strike a balance between using words and pictures to illustrate words.

Grammars rely crucially on a good table of contents and a good index. After all, reference grammars are used to look things up: they are not intended to be read from cover to cover. Finding what you want is often a challenge in a grammar: via the table of contents and the index, users search and find the topic they wish to know more about, and are typically sent to other parts of the book as well via cross-references.

A practical point about both dictionaries and grammars is that, apart from giving the meanings of words and explanations about the structure of a language, they also try to give an idea how those words and sentences sound. Many dictionaries include, apart from the meaning or the translation of words, indications of how those words sound, and how they should be pronounced. Although there is a standard symbolic system for representing sounds (the alphabet devised by the International Phonetic Association (IPA)), few dictionaries actually use that, and instead use a system of the publisher’s (or the editor’s) invention. This is a strain on users, as they need to familiarize themselves with the symbols used; and as most dictionaries use different symbols to represent the same sounds, the situation can become quite confusing.

Grammars have this problem as well. Most descriptive grammars contain an account of the sound system of the described language—not only an inventory of the vowels and consonants, but also how these are combined. Academic grammars are usually standardized to use the IPA alphabet, but even such descriptions can be quite daunting.

Another practical problem that publishers of dictionaries and grammars face is that languages change: new words enter a language, others become obsolete; and words may change their meaning. Apart from this, errors need to be corrected and changing insights incorporated. This means that new editions of a dictionary need to be produced periodically. All this also applies to grammars. It is not only the words of a language that change, but the structure of every language—its syntax, morphology, and phonology— changes as well. And these changes, too, necessitate new editions of grammars.

Most of the problems outlined above can be overcome by online dictionaries and grammars, to which we now turn.

2. Online Grammars And Dictionaries

By ‘online’ we mean the World Wide Web (or ‘the web,’ for short), as this is the best-known online medium that most people will be familiar with. (‘Online’ can also be taken to include CD-ROM, but increasingly, publications on CD-ROM are identical to those on the web.) Documents can be presented on the web in two forms, as HTML (hypertext mark-up language) files, or as PDF (portable document format) files. The differences between these two can be ignored here, as it is the similarities that are important: both allow the same facilities, namely, searching, following built-in links, and playing sounds and displaying images. These three facilities are dealt with below. In the rest of this section, dictionaries and grammars will be discussed separately: dictionaries in Sect. 2.1, and grammars in Sect. 2.2.

2.1 Online Dictionaries

The main activity of a dictionary-user is searching for a word or an expression, and often, following up cross-references in the entries found, or looking up the meaning of a word in a description. For example, in the Concise Oxford Dictionary (COD), one of the explanations of the meaning of the entry leg is ‘obeisance made by drawing back one leg and bending another’. If you do not know what obeisance means, you have to look up this word elsewhere in the dictionary. (Professional dictionary-users, such as translators, benefit greatly from online dictionaries for precisely this reason.)

In an online dictionary, searching an entry is straightforward by using the search facilities offered by the browser, and following up references or looking up unknown words in an explanation (such as obeisance in the example given above) is speedy.

Online dictionaries shine in their multimedia capabilities. For example, dictionaries typically contain a phonetic representation that indicates how a word should be pronounced. (This is especially the case in English dictionaries as pronunciation is so unpredictable in English.) For example, the COD contains the entry antenatal, and from the introduction to the dictionary we learn that a sounds like the ‘a’ in ‘fat’; e like the ‘i’ in ‘pill’; and a like the ‘a’ in ‘fate’ (the prime symbol, , indicates stress). The circularity here, naturally, is that such explanations assume that the user knows how to pronounce ‘fat’, ‘pill’, and ‘fate’. In an online dictionary, it is possible to link a sound file to each entry, such that when users click on that entry, they will hear the word pronounced. Such a system is exploited in the Interactive Introduction to Linguistics ( In this CD-ROM-based system, the user can click on a word to hear how it is pronounced.

Especially when there are small differences in pronunciation, explanations in words can be tedious and ineffectual. A language such as English, which has little correspondence between spelling and pronunciation, can benefit from ‘spoken’ explanations. But other languages can profit from modern technologies as well. For example, Chinese is a language with lexical tone, which means that words with the same spelling can mean up to four totally different things, depending on the tone used. Tone is usually indicated using special symbols, but can be exemplified much better with the use of sound.

Another way in which the multimedia capabilities of the web can be exploited is in its use of pictures. We mentioned earlier that words in a language are often illustrated more easily with a picture than with words, but that publishers have to strike a balance between the use of pictures and words, mainly for reasons of space. With online dictionaries, however, space is hardly an issue. A publisher, then, can decide to add as many pictures as necessary.

2.2 Online Grammars

As is the case with dictionaries, online grammars are used for reference purposes, and therefore need to be easily accessible. We mentioned that traditional grammars depend heavily on the table of contents and the index. But even when the contents and the index are of good quality, finding what you want to know involves a lot of searching. Online grammars, meanwhile, are searchable very easily, thanks to the basic search facilities offered by all browsers. Online grammars, like traditional grammars, typically contain a table of contents and an index, but these are hyperlinked with the body of the text, so that users can jump immediately from the table of contents to the relevant chapter or section. Similarly, when the index entries are hyperlinked to the relevant occurrences in the text, these can be accessed easily through the hyperlinks. And finally, cross-references in the text can be looked up more easily.

Academic descriptive grammars (but non-academic ones as well) often contain a chapter on the phonology (the sound system) of the language, and one or more texts. The audio capabilities of the web make it possible to have the sounds reproduced through the computer’s sound system, and can include the spoken version of the texts included in the grammar.

2.3 Other Advantages

Other advantages of online reference works over their ‘paper’ versions are of a more practical nature. As was mentioned above, languages change all the time, with new words entering the language and others becoming obsolete. With printed dictionaries, this means that new editions need to be produced, which is time- consuming and expensive: not only for the producer, but also for the user. Conversely, online dictionaries are relatively easy to update and maintain.

The relative ease of production is especially beneficial for grammars, which usually take a long time to write. With online grammars, material can be published earlier to make it available to the academic world. In the course of time, more material can be added. Naturally, this only applies to academic grammars, which can be of scientific importance even when not completely finished.

2.4 Disadvantages

Are there disadvantages to online dictionaries and grammars? There are, but these can be overcome. The first issue is quality. As most traditional grammars and dictionaries are published by reputable publishers, there is in most cases a guaranteed degree of editorial control and therefore a degree of quality. On the web, however, this is not necessarily the case: anyone can publish anything on the web, so if the material found here is not endorsed by a reputable publisher, users must be aware of the possible limited reliability.

Second, documents on the web can be updated literally every minute. We mentioned this earlier as an advantage, which in many ways it is, but there is a downside as well. The ease with which web documents can be updated also makes them less stable. This is a problem especially for academic purposes, where everything that is cited in a publication is accounted for by a full reference (year of publication, edition, page numbers, etc.) so that other people can verify the correctness of cited material and cited claims. With texts on the web being subject to change, it becomes difficult to check the accuracy of a publication.


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  4. Dalby A 1998 A Guide to World Language Dictionaries. Library Association Publishing, London
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