Electronic dictionaries. (Instant Definitions Dictionary; The Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus) (Software Review) (Evaluation)
by Anthony Moses
The two things to look for in an electronic dictionary are speed and thoroughness; if there's a serious deficiency in either department, you may as well stick with the old-style, static-display, manually accessed codex (that is, book). Wordscience's Instant Defini tions Dictionary and Refer ware's Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus (College Edition) come up to scratch in both respects. Both are well-executed TSR dictionaries that can be quickly summoned via hot keys either from DOS or from within a word processor, and both are generous in supplying definitions-but each is superior to the other in one of these two departments.
Instant Definitions is based on Houghton Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary (Office Edition) and boasts "more than 116,000 words, word forms, and phrases." The word instant is not misapplied. Once invoked, instant Definitions looks up the word at your cursor or allows you to enter a word manually. If the word matches one of the main entries (or headwords) in the dictionary, Instant Definitions displays the definition, well, instantly. If the word is not a direct match (for example, if it's misspelled), then Instant Definitions provides a Suggestions window which lists alternative words. Highlight the word you want defined, hit Enter, and the Information window appears, providing definitions for the highlighted word, as well at a list of the words derived from it. Words within the definition may be defined by placing the cursor at the word and striking Enter again, opening a separate definitions window.
Instant Definitions' Dictionaryscan feature also allows you to look up entries via key words in the definitions. Can't think of the name of the biped meat-eating dinosaur of the Cretaceous period? Enter camivorous and dinosaur into Dictionaryscan, and tyrannosaurwill pop up. Dictionaryscan can speed things along by letting you limit the range of the search to those letters of the alphabet that you think the word is most likely to occur in. Instant Definitions can be used in conjunction with the thesaurus or spelling checker in most word processors to make sure you're choosing exactly the word you want.
The Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus (RHW) takes longer to load than Instant Definitions (from three to ten seconds, depending on your hardware), but for confirmed dictionary buffs, it's worth the wait. The Random House College Dictionary has long been among the two or three best general reference dictionaries of the language, a standard reflected in the electronic version of the newest edition (which has added the name Webster's to assure people that it's a real dictionary). RHW contains 180,000 entries in its dictionary, supplying not only an ample helping of definitions but also (in many cases) a brief etymology and an approximate date of the word's entry into printed English. In addition to having a larger and slightly more esoteric collection of main entries than Instant Definitions (including biographical entries, some current slang, and the better-known four-letter words), RHW contains a number of extensive notes on usage, touching on such things as regional pronunciation, proper participial forms, political correctness, and the like.
Like Instant Definitions, RHW has a definitions search mode that can scan the dictionary for key terms in the definitions and conjure up the words you want. Unlike Instant Definitions, however, the alphabetic search range cannot be limited, so this may mean settling down to a several-minute wait, even with the fastest Pcs. RHW also provides a Wildcard search mode, for times when you're uncertain of the spelling, and an Anagram search mode, presumably for Scrabble players. As an extra, RHW includes its own thesaurus with 275,000 entries, providing not just synonyms and antonyms but also contextual usage samples that help you to fine-tune your word choice.
Which is better? Well, Instant Definitions is faster and more concise, just the sort of quick-reference electronic dictionary you need if you want to look up a definition right now and get back to work with no fuss. RHW, though a bit slower, is unquestionably the more thor ough of the two--a logophile's electron ic reference tool. Decide whether your style is to grab and run or browse, and buy accordingly.
The Random House Webster's Electronic Dictionary and Thesaurus (College Edition): IBM PC or compatible, 435K RAM, hard drive with 6MB free--$99
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