Our natural vocabularies are a fraction of the words available, so any writer worth her salt consults dictionaries. I certainly had them at my side while writing my two murder mysteries, but that was eons ago, and lately my nonfiction writing has felt more like assembling serviceable slabs of text accompanied by references. So yesterday I dragged out my piddly suite of dictionaries and set them on a small coffee table near my desk.

The Macquarie Dictionary is my fattest, and the one most used when fiction writing. Well laid out and clear, it’s a pleasure to use. I bought a modest American-English dictionary, Webster’s New World Dictionary Fourth Edition for creating a US-language second version of the mysteries, before I decided to standardize on American English.

But what’s this? Only two of the six books on that coffee table are actually dictionaries. Two of the books are old and new editions of the Roget’s Thesauraus, a weird generator of words similar in meaning or type to the one you’re trying to find an alternative to. The Cambridge Guide to Australian English Usage is my equivalent of the American Strunk & White. And one book is Bryson’s Dictionary, by Bill himself, a quirky anthology.

Should I acquire any more dictionaries? Online dictionaries can be useful. Certainly they’re instantaneous, but I find the results to be oddly unauthoritative, often undermined by contrary views from online pundits. I can subscribe to the online version of the Oxford English Dictionary, which is equivalent to buying its twelve physical volumes. I recall reading that Richard Rhodes, one of my flagship writers, worked using an earlier compact-disc version of the OED. But OED Online costs me A$180 annually and might overwhelm. The online site of Merriam-Webster looks great but … but …

For now I’ll stick with what I have. Let me trust that when I need more, what suits me best will be apparent.

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