Kernerman Dictionary News • Number 16 • July 2008

A first look at Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary
John M. Morse



Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary

Merriam-Webster Inc.
Springfield, MA. 2008

2,052 pages

Hardcover $34.95, ISBN 978-0-87779-551-3

Paperback $29.95, ISBN 978-0-87779-550-6

Free downloadable e-book

Free companion website:


This September, Merriam-Webster will publish Merriam-Webster’s Advanced Learner’s English Dictionary, the first advanced learner’s dictionary 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, 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 learner’s dictionary.


In constructing this new dictionary, we were of course mindful of the many fine learner’s dictionaries that have already been published, and we did ask ourselves what special goals we had for this dictionary. What was it 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.

      4.   Extensive usage guidance, in the form of labels, notes, and paragraphs.

      5.   Extensive coverage of phrases.


This isn’t intended to be a complete list of the features of the dictionary. It also includes many of the features that one sees in other learner’s dictionaries – 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.


For 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:



verb [+ obj] or verb [no obj] or [phrasal verb]


noun [count], noun [noncount], noun [singular], noun [plural];pl introduces a plural form

Adjectives and adverbs

adj or adv

-er; -est or [more ~; most~]

always used before a noun

not used before a noun

Other parts of speech

abbr, prep, interj, conj

Other symbols

~ represents the first part of an open compound when inflected forms are being shown

+ with (used to show collocation information) or and (between

 status labels)

€ supplemental note

= alternative equivalent wording (used with example sentences)

/ alternative word (used in example sentences)

[ ] restatement (use in example sentences)


      To help illustrate, here are excepts from a few typical entries:


               2fish verb fish•es; fished; fish•ing

                     1 a [no obj]  : to catch or try to catch fish • I love 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. …


1toll … noun, 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 call, toll-free

   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. • Too much sunlight can take a (heavy) toll on your skin. [=can harm your skin] • Her illness has taken a toll on her marriage.


                  1calm …adj calmer; calmest

                     1 : not angry, upset, excited, etc. • The teacher asked us to remain/stay calm after the fire alarm went off. … • Let’s try to have a calm discussion about your grades. • My brother is always calm, cool, and collected [=he never gets very upset]

                     2 : — used to describe weather that is not windy, stormy, etc. • a calm day • They’re 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

Since this dictionary is the first advanced learners dictionary 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 learner’s 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 learner’s 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.”


Another aspect of this was to recognize what are the words that aren’t 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 aren’t 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.


These 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 school’s 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.


We 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

Merriam-Webster 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 learner’s dictionary. As a result, we created a learner’s dictionary with more usage examples between its covers than any other learner’s dictionary 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.


Many of usage examples incorporate additional features to help learners. For example, synonymous words and phrases are frequently shown:


            a 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.


Compound 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

            She 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]


One 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.


languish … verb … [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.…

legless … adj … 2 Brit slang : extremely drunk  • get legless on lager

like adv  …

   usage Like has many uses in informal speech, especially in the speech of young people.  It 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?”  •  He’s always criticizing everyone, but it’s like, “Who cares what he thinks?” [= he’s always criticizing everyone but no one cares what he thinks.

literally … adv …

   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] …

2little … adj …

   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 • There’s just one little problem we haven’t discussed; the company is going bankrupt!

3lock noun …

   2 locks [plural] literary + humorous : a person’s hair …

looking glass noun … [count] old-fashioned : 1MIRROR 1

loony bin noun … [count] informal + offensive : a hospital for people who are insane € Loony bin is usually used in a joking way …

lucre … 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:


late adv …

    as late as : as recently as – used in referring to a time that you think is surprisingly recent …

laugh … verb …

   be laughing Brit, informal …

   don’t make me laugh informal …

   have to laughIf you say you have to laugh about something …

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

2level adj …

   3 a : having the same height as something else – usually + with • The water was level with my waist. …

liaise verb … chiefly Brit : to make it possible for two organizations or groups to work together … – usually + with or between …

lighten … verb …

   lighten up [phrasal verb] informal : to become more relaxed and informal

listing … noun … 1 a [count] : a printed list – usually + of …

1lodge … verb …

   1 … b [no obj] : to stay at a place for a short period of time ... – often + with • The guests lodged with their hosts overnight. …

   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 and over the long haul

loop … noun …

   5 the 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

lust verb … [no obj] …

   2 : to have a strong desire for something – usually + after • She’s been lusting after [= craving] that job for months. – sometimes + for • investors lusting for profits – sometimes followed by to + verb • a general who lusted to command


As a final remark, it should be said that this new learner’s dictionary makes use of many of the traditional devices of Merriam-Webster native speakers’ dictionaries, but it 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 particularly well.


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…. We’ve 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. I’m hopeful that what we came up with is something that is clear and simple as well as accurate and precise.



Sample pages:

 p.586 fabulous    face

 p.624 fishing