Why Merriam-Webster dictionary has multiple categories to define the meaning of a word, as I think the meaning can't change w.r.t the audience. For eg., if you search the meaning of "less", then there are separate categories for the students/ kids, general meaning and for English learners? It appears that for the learners, they are not giving emphasis to grammar; for example, for them, they have not mentioned that "less" is a comparative form. https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/less

The most surprising thing is that the general definition of "less" as an adjective has one extra meaning as compared to its meaning defined for students as follows: of lower rank, degree, or importance no less a person than the president himself

I know this question is more specific on Merriam-Webster website. I tried to search for the rationale behind these categories, but couldn't find it. I just want to know whether a general definition can vary from a definition of a word when one is addressing the students. Which definition should one consider when he has to understand the meaning of this word?

  • I'm voting to close this question as off-topic because it's not about learning English. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 8:34
  • @user178049 I disagree. Many learners have a huge problem with understanding definitions and knowing which meaning of a word is used. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 9:01
  • @SovereignSun This question would be on-topic if it were about understanding the meanings and definitions of a particular word provided by dictionaries. But this is not the case; this question asks about why MW dictionary has multiple categories to define words. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 9:04
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    @user178049: This question is very much about the process of learning English.
    – Chenmunka
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 9:05
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    @user178049 - You can vote however you want; however, I can't think of a recent ELL question that was more about learning English than this one.
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:17

1 Answer 1


Definitions of a word can vary from one category of use or application area to another. For instance if we take the noun "root":

  • In mathematics - A root of a particular number is another number that, when multiplied by itself one or more times, reaches that number and also A solution of some equations
  • In gardening (biology) - The part of a plant that grows down into the earth to get water and food and holds the plant firm in the ground
  • In anatomy - The part of a hair, tooth, or nail that is under the skin
  • In linguistics - The root of a word is its most basic form, to which other parts, such as affixes, can be added
  • In biblical use - A scion; a descendant
  • In music - The fundamental note of a chord
  • In computing - A user account with full and unrestricted access to a system
  • Other - The cause or origin of something; The part of a thing attaching it to a greater or more fundamental whole; the end or base; An act of rooting (search unsystematically through an untidy mass or area; rummage)

As you can see the word "root" as a noun has very many definitions but some of them are general while others are specialized and that's why dictionaries try to categories these definitions.

Looking into Merriam-Webster's Dictionary (Root) we can see that:

  1. For English Language Learners, Students and Kids the general definitions are:

    • the part of a plant that grows underground, gets water from the ground, and holds the plant in place
    • the part of a tooth, hair, fingernail, etc., that is attached to the body
    • the cause or source of something

I perfectly agree with them since these are the common usages of this word in everyday life. What concerns understanding a definition of a word, here it much depends on the context, area of use and the audience. You would agree that in a dental office if somebody spoke the word "root" they would most probably be referring to "the part of a tooth" rather than anything different, wouldn't you? While in a mathematics class I doubt that somebody would mention something other than "A root of a particular number is another number that, when multiplied by itself one or more times, reaches that number" or "A solution of some equations"

These's also a difference in how they explain definitions to kids, students, language learners or others. For kids the definitions are usually brief, foolproof and written in the most simplest words. For language learners the definitions are usually very teachable and lucid. For students the definitions may be brief and plain, or expanded.

As for the word "less" for language learners, students and kids the common definitions are:

  • comparative form of little (Adjective and Adverb)
  • a smaller number or amount (Pronoun)
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    The word root is a good example. +1 As you say, a learner's dictionary will strive to provide the simplest meaning(s) of a word, stated in the simplest terms. I'd like to add: if a learner wants to learn the full meaning of a word, it is best to consult multiple dictionaries. One site I recommend often is Wordnik, which lists definitions from about four different dictionaries and provides a fairly comprehensive view of a word on a single webpage (with relatively few ads, which is another plus).
    – J.R.
    Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:15
  • @J.R. Yes, I hear about this site often. For English Language Learners it's very handy. I use Abbyy Lingvo and online dictionaries, mostly Cambridge, Oxford, Merriam-Webster, Collins and MacMillan. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:21
  • -1 for explaining the word 'root' that's not mentioned in the question and treating the word 'less', which is the main concern, as merely a side note. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:32
  • @user178049 That side note is a conclusion to which I have come all way through explaining the means to understanding and using definitions of any word. Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 10:45
  • @SovereignSun Why the following meaning of "less (adjective)" is not considered by this dictionary while defining its meaning for students: of lower rank, degree, or importance no less a person than the president himself? Commented Aug 22, 2017 at 11:01

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