Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language Learners Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for speakers of other languages learning English. It's 100% free, no registration required.

My first reference that I use for English words is Wiktionary. I primarily do so because it's a not-for-profit project, so I don't have to worry about it suddenly charging for subscriptions, or that it will have advertising that links to malware.

But recently, I received some comments saying that I shouldn't trust Wiktionary when it says some spellings are superior to other spellings:

I've argued with Wiktionay for years that it has no business declaring one spelling to be the alternative to another. They should use a heading that doesn't lend superiority to one form such as Spellings or Other spellings. Wiktionary entries vary as to how one word is given the "main" entry and others the "alternatives". Sometimes there's a Google Fight, sometimes it's first come first served, sometimes there's a small battle between who is right among British English and American English! Do not trust these Wiktionary labels!

and

Another piece of advice: Don't expect any dictionary to be prescriptive unless it's older than Webster's Third New World Dictionary. By this time all major English dictionaries published in Britain and USA had firmly chosen the path of descriptivism. That means they claim to describe how the language is used, and specifically do not tell people the correct way to use the language. For questions of usage you would do better to consult style guides, such as Strunk and White.

So now I'm wondering how much I should trust Wiktionary.

Currently, my thoughts are:

  1. Wiktionary is a single source of information. As with any information source, if you really want to be sure, you'd want to check multiple, independent, sources.
  2. Wiktionary theoretically has the same vulnerabilities as Wikipedia. These include people engaging in internet vandalism, people editing a wiki to push an agenda, people who are editing Wiktionary in good faith but who are biased, and lack of editorial oversight. However, as Wiktionary isn't as high-profile as Wikipedia, and Wiktionary is slightly more difficult to edit than Wikipedia, I don't think these are major problems.
  3. Wiktionary sometimes incorporates information from out-dated public domain sources.
  4. Wiktionary provides information that a dictionary shouldn't be providing.

With regards to point 4, what information does Wiktionary provide that a dictionary shouldn't provide? Is it merely being prescriptivist in the spelling of a word, or are there other ways it's providing information it shouldn't? For example, should I use Wiktionary to decide whether talking about "a Japanese" rather than "a Japanese person" is offensive?

share|improve this question
2  
Your ##1-3 are dandy. #4, is the information accurate? #1 is the only important one. As for @hippietrail's remarks: how much should you trust a source which refers you to Strunk & White? –  StoneyB Feb 10 '13 at 2:10
3  
I can't understand how can this question be on-topic? This should be migrated to meta! Whether wikitionary/OED/OALD/Grammar girl is correct or not should not be our topic of concern here. It should be migrated to meta, so that community can decide whether they will abide by them or not. But it is not really constructive here. This question can only give rise to speculations. –  Mistu4u Feb 10 '13 at 4:40
1  
Actually I think whether a question such as this belongs on ell or on meta.ell is a question that should be asked (on meta.ell). I tend to agree with @Mistu4u that it belongs on meta though. –  hippietrail Feb 10 '13 at 8:47
1  
How is this a Meta question at all? This question is not about our website, but about something outside our website, namely Wiktionary. Therefore it cannot be a Meta question, I would say? Besides, I think the question is fine: it has already receives several very interesting answers, and it is surely something language learners will find informative. –  Cerberus Feb 10 '13 at 15:48
1  
Don't worry too much about #2, it usually takes less than 2 hours for any form of vandalism to be crushed. Subtle mistakes are probably harder to spot though. As for #3, nothing is truly up to date, you'd need a computer set up to parse every single submission to the internet as it's uploaded to be truly up to date. –  Pharap Oct 19 at 20:04

5 Answers 5

up vote 11 down vote accepted

From my personal experience, Oxford Dictionaries has became my "first reference" - Wiktionary may have most words, but their entry quality often varies a lot, and many have very limited range of listed meanings. Meanwhile, Oxford Dictionaries seems to go for depth instead of breadth; each entry delves into a large number of meanings - I had quite a few questions on EL&U closed as "General Reference" because I'd check Wiktionary, Merriam-Webster and such, while only OED contained an entry for the meaning I was looking for.1)

Still, first Oxford Dictionaries is updated slower than Wiktionary; it may be "behind the times" concerning some entries. So, if you have doubts about Oxford Dictionaries entry, feel free to:

  • Check Wiktionary
  • Check Wiktionary's "History" page for given entry and find when the given meaning was added. If it was added recently, you may trust it's too new for Oxford Dictionaries.
  • Check Urban Dictionary. It's completely unreliable but the bleeding edge of slang that doesn't make its way into more "respectable" dictionaries for years yet.

In essence, going from most reliable and thorough and narrow to most unreliable, shallow and broad; Wiktionary is a step in the middle of that route and a good choice if it's to be your one-stop resource, but not the best if you actually want to research given word.

1) example: Wiktionary, along with a bunch of others I checked did not have the meaning of grunt as mechanical power, especially in a motor vehicle.

share|improve this answer
1  
@snailplane: oxforddictionaries.com use somewhat abridged and harder to navigate but still mostly complete entries from OED - for free. The official OED is a paid resource. –  SF. Feb 5 at 7:49
1  
Well then, 'duh, I've been misguided! Nevertheless, oxforddictionaries.com tends to have better quality entries than competitors - even if not as many of these entries. –  SF. Feb 5 at 7:55

Being an administrator on Wiktionary, my answer may be slightly biased.

1) Wiktionary is a multilingual dictionary and each Wiktionary site attempts to translate words from all known languages into one single language (e.g., en.wikt for all languages into English). This is one advantage over OED or Webster.

2) Wiktionary (or volunteers who work on the website) strives to be descriptive. However, because we are all biased in one way or another, sometimes prescriptive information gets included in the dictionary. Unfortunately, because it is editable by every man and their dog on the Internet, sometimes these flaws get overlooked.

3) One may consider Wiktionary as a bridge between Urban Dictionary and more authoritative dictionaries like Oxford. As long as a term passes the CFI, it may be included provided references are given for the term. This is often at the discretion of administrators such as myself and if a term is disputed, it gets put on RFD or RFV to be checked and dealt with accordingly. There are also issues such as the offensiveness of certain terms, which are often dealt with on Tea room. This IS one of the best things about Wiktionary. Everything is open for discussion.

I believe that in order to understand how Wiktionary works, one needs to tread its waters by contributing to it and engaging oneself in active discussions.

Just a note to the other contributors to ELL, if you find a term is missing an entry or a definition. You are welcome to add it, instead of complaining about it being absent. Wiktionary is a wiki and I am sure by now, most people would be familiar with the concept. This is how I started. I made mistakes along the way, but be sensible and be ready to learn and you will go a long way.

There are some extremely talented people on the website, some fluent in a dozen languages. Maybe you will be one of them too.

share|improve this answer
2  
Slightly biased it may be, but then again arguably you're more than justified in pushing back against what I perceive as a certain bias against Wiktionary here on ELU. In the end, I suspect the problem is that OP is essentially looking for an authoritative prescriptivist reference, but dictionaries (and linguists) have largely abandoned that role. I think Wiktionary does a pretty good job, and I commend you for your part in it. –  FumbleFingers Feb 10 '13 at 16:34
1  
Also, if you find that a term is missing from Wiktionary but don't feel capable of writing an entry yourself, you can also request that it be added –  hippietrail Feb 12 '13 at 0:27
  • When I want to know what modern people use, I do Google searches, including News searches and Books searches.
  • When I want to know what people who like to edit dictionaries as a hobby think, I use Wiktionary.
  • When I want to know what a respected British dictionary has to say, I consult my OED Microprint.
  • When I want to know what a respected American dictionary has to say, I consult my Webster's 3rd.
  • When I want to know what a respected Australian dictionary has to say, I consult my Macquarie's.
  • When I want to know what self-styled experts think, I go to the library and look in style guides like Strunk & White (I don't want to actually own one).

  • When I want to learn all I can about a word or phrase, I use all of these resources and have been known to visit multiple libraries and bookshops to find as many different dictionaries and other references as possible.

I trust some of these sources and take some with a grain of salt, but I don't take any single one as an absolute and incontestable authority.


share|improve this answer
2  
Hi hippietrail :). Well said. –  deutschZuid Feb 10 '13 at 9:03

Trust No One (1). It's the only scientific approach.

  • There's no silver bullet. Dictionaries are written by people. People make mistakes;
  • As a language learner, it is well possible that you simply misunderstand the meaning they wanted to convey;
  • Languages evolve. What was correct yesterday is not necessarily correct today. Remember, five years ago it was grammatical to write e-mail. Today, email is preferred. It is well possible that a single source is not updated;
  • Using various sources not only helps learning different opinions. It also makes you familiar with different methods of explanation, a good asset by itself.

As per #4, the answer is the same. Some sources may not simply contain sufficient information about whether or not a certain word is offensive in every geographic area or logical context.


(1) As a nice exception, you may always trust me. :)

share|improve this answer
    
Email is really only preferred because people are too lazy to press the - key on a keyboard. (I regret to say that I am one of them) –  Pharap Oct 19 at 19:48

Like Wikipedia, the problem with Wiktionary is its sheer importance; it's the largest single repository. It is not well structured. Like every dictionary, it is demonstrably biased. It is extensively cited by linguistic researchers; this practice is discouraged by the community as it does not claim or attempt to be authoritative. YMMV, you're just going to have to make a decision whether it fits your goals and specs.

share|improve this answer
    
Yep, I have to use whatever dictionary the publisher's style manual tells me to use: Merriam-Webster's 11th New Collegiate, Oxford British English, Dorland's Medical, or Steadman's Medical. Otherwise, I make my own decisions and the publishers don't care. –  user264 Feb 10 '13 at 5:50

protected by J.R. Feb 25 '13 at 18:43

Thank you for your interest in this question. Because it has attracted low-quality answers, posting an answer now requires 10 reputation on this site.

Would you like to answer one of these unanswered questions instead?

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.