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Best English Dictionaries

English dictionaries

A good English dictionary is the first thing you’ll need to prepare for your exam. Your vocabulary becomes extremely important in Speaking and Writing sections of IELTS (or CAE). Reading section can turn into a real struggle too if you find too many words to have unfamiliar or unclear meaning. Let’s try and find a dictionary that suits your needs best!

Note that the covers may look different depending on the current edition of the dictionary

Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary

Oxford Advanced Learner's Dictionary

This is the first choice for a beginner. This dictionary explains word meanings in clear and simple English. Even though the title says ‘Advanced’, it is a very beginner-friendly dictionary that can be comfortably used by upper-intermediate and even intermediate level learners.

WORDFINDER section introduce relevant words that the reader may find interesting.

Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary definition example 2

EXPRESS YOURSELF section provides the learner with ways to phrase the same idea in a different way.

Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary


This dictionary will make a good choice for a more confident and experienced learner of English. It has more descriptive examples of word usage and generally there are more examples for each word.

FOCUS ON WRITING section provides the reader with entries on good academic writing techniques and habits.

Vocabulary profile is a nice touch that lets the learner know which words meanings they should know at their particular level — B2 (Upper-Intermediate), C1 (Advanced) and so on.

Cambridge Advanced Learners Dictionary definition exampleAnother useful feature of this dictionary is that it addresses typical mistakes, both spelling and grammar. The authors target mistakes made specifically by non-native learners of English. You may want to see these lists of common mistakes in writing and speaking while you’re at it.

The official Cambridge University Press page states that this dictionary is perfect for IELTS, CAE and FCE preparation.

These two dictionaries should get your started in the right direction. With time, you will want to pick up a more specific dictionary more suited for your needs, but by then you will well know what exactly it is you are after.

Having a paper dictionary is great, but it is believed that they will eventually become ousted by their online counterparts. Using an online dictionary is quick, simply and always available. Any definition you may require is literally at your fingertips — with the help of your smartphone of choice.

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE)

Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English

This is my personal favourite. Each definition is complete with the frequency of use, British and American English pronunciation audio sample, transcription and examples of use in sentences. If the word belongs to a selected topic set, it is also mentioned.

Longman dictionary of contemporary englisht

As seen from the example above, the sentences used to illustrate the use of word are made of fairly advanced vocabulary. This could dissuade less experienced learners from using it and opting for the next online dictionary.


This is the minimalist’s choice — all you get is a simple definition, example of pronunciation, simplified transcription (no special phonetic symbols) and a couple of short phrases or sentences to illustrate usage of the word.


The beauty of dictionary.com is that it doesn’t barrage its user with tons of data. It is a concise tool the sheer simplicity of which is easy to appreciate.

How to increase vocabulary

an open book with visible binding seam

To have good vocabulary is probably the most important thing in spoken and written English. To know the right word at the right moment is important. In fact, it is so important it can make or break your conversation or paper. It can be especially aggravating when you know the word but fail to recall it at the right moment. Coming up with the word minutes after you needed it only adds to the frustration.


This is the most obvious choice. Read as much as you can and whenever you see a word or a phrase you don’t quite understand — write it on a separate sheet of paper. If you can’t figure out the rough meaning of it then look it up in the dictionary. E-readers like Kindle are especially good for that as they have a built-in dictionary which makes learning new words effortless and pleasant experience.

After writing the new words out it is necessary to revise them. Morning is the best time to memorize new things — so have a quick read of your new list during breakfast for maximum efficiency. Writing sentences using the newly-memorized words is a great way to ensure you never forget them.

Do not do this just for the sake of learning new words. It will turn into a chore that way. What you should do is pick a book that you are interested in — maybe a book you have already read in your mother tongue. Learning something new is easy as long as the reading is fun for you.


Movies can be as good as reading or even better. It takes almost no effort to watch a movie, With movies you get to memorize pronunciation — knowing a new word is almost useless unless you know how to pronounce it right.

Movies also help you improve your listening comprehension. If you struggle to understand what the characters are saying then you might need some time to adapt to their accents. If it doesn’t help then consider using subtitles. Another approach is to first watch it subtitled, write out all the unknown words, memorize them and then watch it again to test your knowledge.

Flash Cards

A flash card is a small piece of paper which has a word written on one side and it’s definition on the other. Alternatively, you can write the same word in your language.

It is a proven and effective way to learn new things — not just new words, but facts, technical data and much more. Not only do flashcards help learning, they also come very handy in revisions.

Anki is a great flashcard tool. It’s free and available for download both to PC and smartphones/tablets.


Well, isn’t that an obvious one? Dictionaries are fun and easy way to increase your vocab. Good dictionaries have word lists, cultural reference sections, common mistakes reviews and much more! Not sure what dictionary to use? Check this entry that gives a few examples of both paper and online dictionaries.

Word Lists

This is handy when you need to prepare to a certain topic (i.e. “Family”, “Education”, “Hobbies”). A word list will contain most common words and phrases on this topic. Here is an example of a short list of words on “Education” from speaklanguages.com:

to spell
head boy
school governor
Related Verbs
to sit an exam
to fail an exam
to pass an exam
to revise
to study up

Masters student
PhD student
Master’s degree
Bachelor’s degree
student loan
tuition fees

As you can see the list has both single words and phrases as well as verbs. Most of the time it is easier to increase vocabulary if the new word share a theme.


Whichever way you choose, remember one thing — it’s not that difficult to learn ten new words in a day. It’s learning 10 words each day for a month, that is more. Keep following the “10 new words” rule for a 365 days and by this day next year you will have increased your vocabulary considerably!

Formal and Informal Vocabulary

formal and informal
This entry is about differences in vocabulary of formal and informal styles. For general differences, see this article.

Both formal and informal vocabulary can be found in all spheres of the language. As the language becomes more liberal, combining these two groups of words gets more common. Below is an example list of words and expressions in formal and informal registers.

What does ‘formal’ mean? Simply put, it means something or someone following established norms, traditions and habits. A formal letter should have certain structure and vocabulary, usually more official and strict. Think of formal as a rough synonym for ‘official’.

Vocabulary for letters

To ask for helpTo request assistance
To tell, to let knowTo inform, to notify
Speak toAddress smb.
Talk aboutDiscuss, consider
Fix, take care of, put rightRectify, amend
I think that …I believe/hold it that …
I want to …I wish to …
I’m ready to …I am willing to …
I’m angry about …I am dissatisfied with …
Deal with, take care ofManage, resolve, settle
Put up withTolerate, bear, endure
Bring upMention
Take awayRemove
ThanksI am grateful/thankful for …
I’m sorry about …I regret about …
I’m writing aboutI am writing regarding
I’ll get in touch …I will contact …
If you have any questionsShould you have any questions

General formal and informal vocabulary

AndAs well as …
So, in this mannerThus
If …Should … /Whether …
If … or notWhether … or not
For sureDefinitely/Assuredly/Certainly

It is recommended to stick to either formal or informal words whenever possible. In other words, don’t mix two registers. It is as important as consistency in using English and American spelling. However, using two registers in your speech is not a serious error. At least as far as your speech is concerned. You should nevertheless pay attention to your writing — if you can use a less colloquial expression in your formal letter then you should do so. Sometimes mixing can’t be helped — for example, using phrasal verbs in a text. Phrasal verbs give life to your writing, so you shouldn’t abstain from using them. But such things as contracted forms or slang words — they do not belong in a formal text. Some dictionaries have detailed entries on formal and informal register.

Which register should I use?

The degree of formality is usually decided by the following factors:

  • How well you know the person you’re writing to — the better you know the person, the less formal your writing will be (within reasonable limits)
  • The purpose of your letter — business correspondence tends to be more formal
  • The relative position of the person you’re writing to — a letter to your boss will be strictly formal. A letter to your subordinate is more likely to be semi-formal or fairly informal.

Use your judgement and common sense to decide on the register. For example, a letter to your boss who is much older than you, but whom you know very well is likely to be semi-formal, despite of his age and position. Conversely, if you are the head of department writing to a junior staff member whom you do not know, your letter should be on the formal side.


Bottom line is: if you are unsure whether to use formal or informal words, then stick to more respectable and tactful formal vocabulary. Nobody is going to hate you for being too formal. You will get a funny look or two if you overshoot with formality, but that is definitely not the end of the world!

On the other hand, opting for informal style and vocabulary in certain situations may be tactless and even rude. This in mind, use this simple rule:
When in doubt, keep it formal!

Intensifiers or synonyms to “very”


To give stronger meaning to an expression you use a word called an intensifier — like “very”. To make your speech and writing more varied you should know synonyms to very as it tends to be used too much. Learn this once and you will never have to embarrass yourself with repeating it three times in the same sentence!


Quite is a universal replacement for very. It collocates with virtually any adverb and adjective. There is a catch though — the meaning of this word is different in American and British English. Quite in British English means “somewhat, to some extent” while American English quite means “very”.
Examples: These biscuits are quite tasty — you should give them a try. We were quite thrilled to hear the teacher’s speech

Really and extremely

Extremely is the strongest of all intensifiers. It is also somewhat formal, so it is more often to be found in letters and texts rather than speech.
Examples: It was extremely careless of you to leave the door opened. She is usually extremely rude to everyone

Really is quite strong too. It is fairly informal, occurring in everyday speech. If you use it, then you mean that something was considerably more intensive than usually, you put great emphasis on it.
Examples: He is really good at singing (He is a much better singer than many others). They stayed at this really expensive hotel (The hotel was considerably more expensive than other places)

Fairly, somewhat

These “intensifiers” actually serve the opposite function – they weaken the word that follows. They show that the quality is present but limited.
Examples: He is fairly good at football (He isn’t too good, probably below average). He is somewhat famous in this part of the country (He is famous, but not so much)

Absolutely, totally

Both are nice alternatives to very. The difference is that they are used with words that have “extreme” meaning — words that already mean the highest degree of something: He is a very smart boy. But: She is absolutely brilliant. Word brilliant is “extreme” so you cannot say very brilliant.
More examples: It was absolutely ridiculous of John to bring that up. They had spent the night in an absolutely gorgeous place


Knowing these alternatives to “very” is nice indeed, however don’t feel obliged to use all of them in the same text. Above all, do not use them with every adjectives as some students tend to — this deprecates the value of the intensifier as you put it everywhere. Every intensifier has to be used for a reason. This applies both to your writing and your spoken language.

Formal and Informal English

There are two registers in English — formal and informal. Formal language is more common for official speeches, writing, academic texts. Informal (also known as colloquial) finds its application in speech and writing that take place among friends or people that know each other well.

You are likely to encounter assignments with formal and informal styles in your IELTS Task 1 General, CAE Letter writing and TOEFL writing. Should you choose to enter a college or university, most of your academic papers will have to be in formal style. Your opinion articles however will remain to be informal.

Formal style
  • Differences in vocabulary (Allow instead of let; beverages, not drinks; appropriate, not proper). See formal and informal vocabulary for more!
  • No contracted forms of words (He is, not he’s; We are not we’re; there are not there’re)
  • Use of passive constructions to make the statement sound less categorical. This includes distancing(also known as hedging) and passive voice:
    Distancing/hedging is a way to make the saying more vague, to distance yourself from the opinion you express. It makes you sound like a messenger rather than the author of this opinion
    Examples: Some people think that alcohol should be made illegal
    1.2 Use it to make your expression more tactful and polite.
    Examples: It seems that you have forgotten to greet the guests; You might want to park your car on the other side of the street next time, it is forbidden to leave your vehicles here
    1.3 Hedging comes in handy to communicate information that is unconfirmed. This way the speaker will feel responsible should the information he gives turns out to be false.
    Examples: It is believed that the troops will leave the country in two weeks; They seem to be supportive of our ideas
    For more information on hedging constructions visit this page of uefap.com website — it has a comprehensive list of hedging/distancing devices
    2. Use of passive voice to move the focus of sentence to action rather than the thing or person.
    Examples: I was forced to go to that party; The food has been bought by my mother; The money had been paid in full
  • Multiple clauses within one sentence. (President Obama thought that this situation should be dealt with assertively and as soon as the conflict is over the country’s foreign policy has to be reconsidered)
    Such unnecessarily long sentences are typical for formal writing. I advice whenever possible to make your sentences more concise, easier to read.
  • Avoiding use of phrasal verbs when possible (To continue, not to go on; To concede, not to give up)
Informal (colloquial) style
  • Use of ellipsis. Ellipsis is leaving out words from sentence without making it more difficult to understand. Below are examples of elliptical sentences with full sentences in brackets
    Examples: Write to you soon (I will write to you soon); Got to go (I have got to go); See you later (I will see you later)
  • Informal punctuation. Exclamation marks(!) and ellipsis (aka triple dot (…) have their use in informal text, but  never in a formal one.
  • You are encouraged to use:
    1. Phrasal verbs. They make your text more cohesive, easier to read.
    2. One- or two-clause sentences. Shorter sentences generally help understanding the gist of your text or speech.
    3. Contracted forms (He’s, we’re).
    4. Slang and set expressions. See formal and informal vocabulary

English language collocations


Collocations are words that combine well together, making set phrases. “Do your homework”, “a brief period”, “a bunch of flowers” — all of these are collocations, accepted combinations of words. It is one of the fundamental aspects of natural English. Good knowledge of collocations makes your speech sound effortless and cohesive.

Why you should learn collocations

  • Proper use of collocations makes your speech and writing more natural. You say Do me a favour, not make me a favour
  • Gives you more freedom to paraphrase your ideas correctly. Examples: to get a job, to find a job, to look for a job
  • Collocations are tough to guess if you don’t know them. It takes a very developed “feel” of the language to guess them correctly

Types of collocations

  • Noun+noun. (a flock of birds, a giant of a man, file and rank)
  • Noun+adjective. (a major problem, a key point, a plausible outcome)
  • Noun+verb. (I like to watch TV; he shut the door)
  • Verb+adverb. (to step lightly; he easily defeated him; they barely moved)
  • Adverb+adjective (I was pleasantly surprised to learn that)

This is a list of basic collocation groups. There are some more, but for now we shall concentrate on those above.

There are two ways to learn new collocations. You can use specialized dictionaries and dedicated textbooks for that. Alternatively, you may want to note any collocations in text you read and write them down. Of course, you have to be experienced enough to be able to recognize them.

This article contains the most basic collocations. They are grouped by words rather than types. I believe such grouping makes more practical sense. To make sense is a collocation too by the way.
Some verbs have explanations (in brackets), mostly more complex ones. All of the verbs have illustrative examples.

Collocations with “do”

Do a favour Do me a favour, stop pestering me with your problems
Do one’s best (try very hard to achieve smth.) — I did my best and we won
Do the dishes/cleaning/laundryHave some tea, I have to do the dishes
Do one’s hair (to comb, wash, arrange hair) — I want my hair done
Do damage/harmLast night’s storm did much damage to the house
Do an experimentThey have done some experiments on animals

Collocations with “make”

Make a fuss (to cause argument, commotion) — She made a fuss over the fact that the waitress didn’t smile at her
Make noise — The noise her rusty old car was making could was terrible
Make a choice — The choice had to be made as soon as possible
Make a mistake — Making such mistakes is unacceptable
Make a phone call — She has to make a few calls before noon
Make a decision — Making this decision wasn’t easy for either of us
Make an effort (to attempt, to try to do something) — They made an effort to reach out to them

Collocations with “get”

Get upset He got upset because of your behaviour
Get better (to recover e.g. from illness) — Our dog is getting better
Get angry You shouldn’t get angry at him, he’s too young
Get married Nowadays people get married in their thirties
Get permission I got the permission to leave from my boss
Get drunk Last Friday we got so drunk I don’t remember anything
Get up (to wake up or to stand up) — Get up, it’s time to go
Get lost (to lose one’s way) — Once she got lost in the woods there
Get away (to run away or to remain unpunished) — I don’t understand how does he manage to get away with his behaviour

Collocations with “go”

Go hiking/jogging/sightseeing Would you like to go jogging with me early in the morning?
Go to bed After the army I go to bed at 10 pm sharp
Go missing (to get lost) — The lady went missing two days ago
Go abroad (go to another country) — We don’t go abroad very often
Go mad (become crazy) — There’s something wrong with Jack, I think he went completely mad
Go quiet (become silent) — Suddenly, the street went completely quiet

Collocations with “catch”

Catch a cold (get or suffer from cold) — He forgot his cap and caught terrible cold last night
Catch a taxi/bus/train Hurry up or we wont be there in time to catch out train!
Catch smb red-handed (catch committing crime) — The robbers were caught red-handed by the police
Catch sight of smb (notice someone) — I caught sight of your yesterday evening in the mall
Catch smb’s eye (to attract attention) — The girl by the arcade machine really caught my eye

The Misspelled: Difficult English Words

Spelling in English can be hard. A misspelled word often ruins the impression of your writing. Wrong spelling in your essay will seriously reduce your overall score. At times it can be as simple as just paying attention to what you are writing. Other times though it can be tricky, especially when it comes to words borrowed from other languages, namely the French ones (like connoisseur).

A comforting fact is that ability to spell has little to do with your overall intelligence. Many famous writers were known for being very bad at that (spelling, that is).

How to improve your spelling

The one and only surefire way to increase your spelling literacy is to memorise words. Reading helps and so does looking words up occasionally whenever you have doubts about the correct way of spelling them. You can use flashcards to revise problematic words. Anki is probably the best free software that help memorising things — vocabulary, spelling and much more!

British or American spelling?

As you should already know by now, there are minor differences in spelling and more serious differences in vocabulary. Even though mixing British and American vocabulary isn’t punitive, you absolutely have to be consistent with your spelling. So if you choose to stick to British spelling (e.g. centre, cheque, judgement) then omitting “u” in “valour” or “labour” will be regarded as mistake and scored accordingly. Here is a basic reference table to AmE/BrE spelling:

American English

British English

Color, valor, honor, humor etc.

Colour, valour, honour, humour etc.

Theater, center, fiber, liter etc.

Theatre, centre, fibre, litre etc.

Realize, analyze, apologize, colonize etc.

Realise, analyse, apologise, colonise etc.

Traveler, enrollment, fulfill, jewelry, marvelous etc.

Traveller, enrolment, fulfil, jewellery, marvellous etc.

Offense, license, pretense etc.

Offence, licence, pretence etc

Words with difficult spelling

These are the usual suspects. Take your time to memorise this list of difficult words. You can even use  this list for dictation in your English class!

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