Are Online Dictionaries Better Than the Print Versions?

This page may contain affiliate links, which means that I may receive a commission on purchases made through those links at no extra cost to you. See my affiliate disclosure for more information.

 How often do you use a dictionary?

Everyone should have a reliable online dictionary that they use regularly.

I own all the reference works that I use regularly as physical books. But if I had to pick between Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate and its online counterpart, I would have to choose the online dictionary.

Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate

The Book

On my bookshelf I have the eleventh edition of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary.

I have the most recent version with a 2020 copyright and thousands of new words added since the previous printing. But since the eleventh edition was originally published in 2003, this book hasn’t been fully updated in almost two decades.

The Website

At you can find the online dictionary counterpart to the Collegiate.

This has similar content to the print version but with extra space to present it in more detail. While physical books have a limited amount of space on each page, a website has room to add more content.

The website was created simply as an online version of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, Eleventh Edition. Since then it has been continually updated and expanded, and several new features have been added specifically for readers of the online dictionary.1

For example, there is a section in each entry with examples of recent use in online news publications, which can help readers see how the word is currently being used in the real world. In the image below, I looked up the word “hypothetical”:

Each entry also has an audio recording for anyone who wants to learn the correct pronunciation without having to understand phonetic symbols.

The online version is more up-to-date

The Merriam-Webster FAQ page states that “In cases where discrepancies occur between the print Collegiate® Dictionary and the Dictionary, the Dictionary typically provides the most up-to-date information.”2

If you want to look up a word like “bioabsorbable,” you’ll only find it in the online dictionary. It was added by Merriam-Webster in April 2019 along with many others such as “screen time,” “buzzy,” and “gig economy.”3

Because of the time it takes for a book to get published, a dictionary can already be considered out-of-date by the time it reaches the shelves. Even if you’re looking for words added several years ago, you’ll need the online dictionary to look up “photobomb,” “conlang,” “Seussian,” or “SCOTUS.”4

And unfortunately, new words that have only recently come into our general vocabulary are sometimes the same ones that you don’t know yet and need to look up a definition for.

Merriam-Webster Unabridged

At is Merriam-Webster’s online edition of their unabridged dictionary. Unlike the Collegiate online dictionary, the Unabridged is only accessible to those with a subscription, which costs $4.95 per month or $29.95 per year and also includes the ability to search the Collegiate without ads.

The most recent edition of the Unabridged in print is called Webster’s Third New International Dictionary and was published in 1961.

This online edition is the fourth edition, named Merriam-Webster Unabridged, with updates begun in 2011 and, to my knowledge, is still ongoing. Updating an unabridged dictionary that is fifty years out-of-date is understandably a detailed and time-consuming process.

Comparing the Collegiate and the Unabridged

Merriam-Webster’s online Collegiate is more up-to-date than the Unabridged, but the latter is still helpful in several ways. Namely, the unabridged online dictionary provides more definitions and example sentences on many entries and additionally has words that don’t appear in the Collegiate.

Sometimes I like to look up a word in both versions when I want a thorough understanding of the word and its most current definitions.

For example, if you search “they” in the online Collegiate you will see the definition “3. d —used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”5 If you then search the unabridged version, you’ll find that this entry hasn’t been updated since Merriam-Webster started recognizing its use as a gender pronoun for nonbinary people (which was in September 2019).6

So which dictionary to choose?

If you are currently looking for a new dictionary, whether in a professional capacity or not, I strongly encourage everyone to use the online Collegiate at It gives authoritative and up-to-date definitions as well as example sentences, etymological information, synonyms, and dates of first known use.

It’s also free, though there will be ads.

If you enjoy using a paper dictionary, this isn’t necessarily a bad idea. I do have a print copy of Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, but especially for a casual user the online dictionary will probably be more useful.

I would definitely stay away from the 1961 unabridged version that is both vastly out of date and extremely large and heavy.

What do these dictionaries cost?

The online dictionary at costs absolutely nothing, which is one of the main reasons why I think everyone should be using it.

It isn’t necessary to spend money in order to get access to Merriam-Webster’s authoritative definitions and other resources. But if you’re curious, purchasing the Collegiate print hardcover is $27.95 from the Merriam-Webster website and will include a year’s subscription to Merriam-Webster Unabridged. Purchasing the print version of the unabridged dictionary is $129.00 and also comes with the online subscription.

Just purchasing the subscription to Merriam-Webster Unabridged would cost you $29.95 per year or $4.95 per month.

Is an unabridged dictionary worth it?

If you are a writer or an editor that uses a dictionary in your professional life, it could be worth it to get a subscription to Merriam-Webster Unabridged. I am currently subscribed to it and plan to continue doing so in future years.

I have found it helpful in the past, particularly the additional example sentences that can help confirm a word’s usage in specific situations.

But if you aren’t an editor and don’t have a career that involves a large amount of writing, it’s likely that you will find everything you need from the online dictionary or whichever alternative dictionary you prefer.

Image of a book on a table with the words: "Making the case for online dictionaries"
Clara Carlson-Kirigin

Clara Carlson-Kirigin

I’m Clara, the editor behind Prometheus Editorial. I work with fantasy and romance authors who want to invest in professional editing to help their novels succeed. I love teaching people how to harness the power of language, find their voice, and reach their target readership.

You May Also Like…

Join My Newsletter!

Would you like tips on improving your writing and storytelling, finding the right editor for your novel, and successfully navigating the publishing process? Join my email list and you'll start getting my expert advice and insider tips straight to your inbox.

You can unsubscribe at any time. See my Privacy Policy.

Check your email to confirm your subscription!

Share This