Questions that can be answered using commonly-available references are off-topic. What good reference works on English are available online, and what kinds of questions are they good at answering?

Yeah, it's related, but my goal here is a) to have a more easily accessible list, and b) to have a more complete one (e.g. I remember seeing a few days ago an idiom dictionary). – zpletan Apr 11 '12 at 12:37
Related: What are your favorite English language tools? – Mitch Apr 11 '12 at 17:36
@Mitch, that one's related as well, but I think it differs in a) trying to provide broader sets or types of references, and b) setting forth a list of standard references. – zpletan Apr 11 '12 at 17:39
another section/answer would be grammar/style guides. – Mitch Apr 11 '12 at 19:19
I honestly don't know too many (read: any) of those—if you do, go ahead and add 'em. – zpletan Apr 11 '12 at 19:22
The answers are providing a great list of general reference tools. Now can we please get the FAQ and the "closed due to general reference" message to link here? – Old Pro Jun 4 '12 at 7:58
Could I add a few online English grammar guides under, General Language and English Language Reference? I think new users might find it immediately more useful. My suggestions would be: British Council, Grammar-Quizzes and English Page – Mari-Lou A Jul 23 '13 at 9:11
@Mari-LouA I don't know those sites but I think this page suffers from a lack of enough standard grammar references. – MετάEd Aug 10 '13 at 16:22
Well, I think if users were to least refer to these sites for the basics and then come back asking for clarification, it would raise the quality of many questions which for now are being voted either off-topic or duplicates. Another idea might be to select the "best" or the most voted answers from the past, group them together under one or more categories. For example a selection of answers which deal with the differences and usages of "which", "whom", "who" and all their variants. That could become a unique database for future grammar references. – Mari-Lou A Aug 10 '13 at 16:37
I have suggestions that I do not see already on this thread. As a writer and poet, these sites are invaluable to me. (Part 1) Reference resource: They provide a wide variety of references including the following in their definitions: derivations, origins, nearby words, synonyms, antonyms, related searches, and all forms from the root word. The responses frequently present the sources and extended sources as well, such as the World English Dictionary, Origin & History Dictionary reference, Slang Dictionary, Science Dictionary, Medical Dictionary, and Computing Dictionary. – Cindy Page Aug 23 '13 at 8:19
(Part 2) The second source I recommend is This site provides the following search possibilities: near rhymes, the usual thesaurus searches like synonyms, and antonyms, plus related words, similar sounding words, homophones, letter match search, spelling assistance, pictures, references found in Shakespeare, or quotations where the word is used. It also has links to the Books of the Bible, a reverse dictionary, and famous quotes. A search can be organized by syllables or by letters, and can include or exclude phrases. (One more section to add.) – Cindy Page Aug 23 '13 at 8:22
(Part 3)The last recommendation comes from my college and university experiences in writing for classes and in tutoring. If needed, I also have references to learning how to write well through video presentations that address specific subjects in each video. The videos are great for lower level students, for tutoring new college students, for amateur writers, and for answering obscure English usage and grammar questions. They have videos for ESL students, as well. Finally, I noticed you did not reference the Middle English Dictionary which is online at Michigan University. – Cindy Page Aug 23 '13 at 8:23
I forgot to add the Purdue OWL, the "Online Writing Lab" at Purdue University after mentioning its use at the beginning of Part 3. I should have said go to Purdue OWL for references for college and university writing - for classes, and for research papers. That site has answers to most MLA and APA questions in easy to understand instructions, as well as help in all other areas of writing, from fiction and poetry, to sociology, and the sciences. – Cindy Page Aug 23 '13 at 8:35
For some reason there's no mention of grammar. Rodney Huddlestone provides a great overview of English syntax. – Gaston Ümlaut Nov 26 '13 at 10:53

11 Answers 11


Useful for finding definitions, etymologies, pronunciations, and examples of usage.

General-purpose dictionaries

The online dictionaries listed here are those most commonly cited on EL&U. They are broadly suitable for native speakers, providing major definitions and examples, pronunciations (including audio), basic etymology, and some usage notes.

Also see

  • New Oxford American Dictionary - bundled with recent releases of MacOS X
  • Wiktionary - a publicly edited dictionary. Like any crowdsourced resource it can be easily manipulated, and its definitions and translations should be taken with caution; by the same token, it is likely to include neologisms and new meanings faster than traditional dictionaries will.
  • Google Dictionary - Although Google no longer maintains a separate dictionary service, entering [define searchterm] into the search box will return a short definition, its basic etymology, and an NGram showing the word or phrase's prevalence in the Google Books corpus. The source of the definition is not disclosed, but it is usually accurate enough for general reference.

Learner's dictionaries

A learner's dictionary is geared to the needs of people learning English as a foreign or second language, for example, by providing notes on usage and common errors. Commonly cited on EL&U are the following:


"Meta-dictionary" is something of a misnomer; it is not a dictionary of dictionaries, but a resource that collects entries from multiple resources in a single place.

  • OneLook - Provides direct links to definitions posted at scores of other online reference sites of every stripe.

  • ( - Primarily sourced from the Random House Dictionary for American English and the Collins English Dictionary for British English. Some entries also include additional material from the Online Etymology Dictionary, The Dictionary of American Slang, The American Heritage Idioms Dictionary, and other specialized dictionaries including some medical, legal, and computing sources.

  • The Free Dictionary - Primarily sourced from the American Heritage Dictionary, the Collins English Dictionary, and Random House Kernerman Webster's College Dictionary. Most entries include thesaurus entries from WordNet, Roget's, and others, plus translation suggestions from Collins and Kernerman translation dictionaries.

  • Wordnik - Primarily sourced from the American Heritage Dictionary and WordNet, but notable for its lengthy lists of related terms and concepts.

Historical and dialectical dictionaries

These dictionaries may be helpful for researching word origins and formation, semantic drift, and historical and regional variations.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary (online subscription required¹) - The sine qua non of historical dictionaries of English, showing the development of word meanings, including obsolete and obscure meanings.

  • Online Etymology Dictionary - An extensive free compilation of word origins compiled by Douglas Harper, drawing on the OED and other sources.

  • The English Dialect Dictionary, being the complete vocabulary of all dialect words still in use, or known to have been in use during the last two hundred years..., OUP 1898-1905. Compiled by Joseph Wright, the EDD remains a standard in the historical study of dialect.

  • Australian National Dictionary - The standard historical dictionary for words and idioms that originate in Australian English.

  • Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE), subscription required - Based on extensive surveys carried out since the 1960s, the DARE is a compilation of words, [hrases. and usages which are specific to a particular region of the United States.
  • Dictionary of Canadianisms on Historical Principles, 1st edition - Shows meanings of various terms specific to Canada, including obsolete and outdated meanings.

    ¹ Many schools and libraries have full access to the OED Online. The third edition is not available in print, only online, but the first two editions have print forms.

    ² The original name, when it started fascicle-by-fascicle publication in the 1880s, was A New English Dictionary On Historical Principles, but by the time the last volume was published in 1928 it was generally known as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), under which name subsequent editions (including facsimiles of the original) have gone.

Idioms, expressions and slang

There are numerous print dictionaries which focus on idioms, including various offerings by Oxford and McGraw-Hill. Quality online references are rarer.

  • TFD Idioms and Phrases - From TheFreeDictionary, a searchable database of idioms from the Cambridge International Dictionary of Idioms and the Cambridge Dictionary of American Idioms.
  • The Phrase Finder - Provides meanings and origins of numerous English expressions and sayings, with commentary by Gary Martin.

There are countless resources on slang, including published dictionaries such as the McGraw-Hill Dictionary of American Slang and Colloquial Expressions. By nature, however, slang usage is informal and ephemeral, and difficult to compile into a definitive reference. Most online slang dictionaries must rely on user input, with wildly varying accuracy and reliability. Nevertheless, they are much faster to update than traditional dictionaries, and have dates which help track evolution. Examples include the Online Slang Dictionary, edited by Walter Rader; A Dictionary of Slang by Ted Duckworth; and probably the most popular, Urban Dictionary.


  • Kenyon and Knott's 1949 A Pronouncing Dictionary of American English - The gold standard for American phonemes.
  • - Created by Tim Bowyer, provides audio clips of a "standard British" pronunciations of various words, with some alternatives, based on the suggested pronunciation given by major dictionaries. It lacks phonetic transcriptions, definitions, or other notations, however.
Urban Dictionary can be very useful to check first/early definitions and most popular definitions, but of course care must be taken. – Hugo May 22 '12 at 18:40
It should be noted that dictionaries published in the United States do not use standard Kenyon-Knott phonemic transcription, but rather an archaic, unscientific, and ultimately useless pronunciation system invented in the 18th century by Noah Webster. They are thus not suitable for non-native English speakers, nor for speakers of any English dialect except American English. – John Lawler Dec 28 '12 at 20:44
Onelook is actually a metalink to other dictionaries and provides no definitions in itself. It is a great starting place. – bib Aug 29 '13 at 19:27
For a more classical Webster, check out: I consider the examples and etymology more useful, especially for archaic words and literary uses. – The Nate Nov 14 '15 at 0:15


Useful for finding word usages and collocations.

Are Google Books/Ngrams considered a corpus? – zpletan Apr 11 '12 at 17:44
sure, it's the text of 'all' books. You won't get the same kinds of things out it as like COCA or BNC. Also, NGrams has a number of difficulties: poor metadata (wrong dates/authors), OCR errors (FPs and FNs because of misreading), poor dealing with punctuation. – Mitch Apr 11 '12 at 18:47
The “general reference” close reason links here, but Ngrams are tricky enough to use well that I would not recommend closing a question just because it's possible to answer with an Ngram. – Bradd Szonye Aug 5 '13 at 5:17
Speaking from the layperson's point of view. I don't think the corpora are tools that your average user is familiar with. I have struggled myself to obtain the results I was hoping for. If there could be a type of "for dummies guide" then users and learners alike would be able to successfully exploit these reference instruments. – Mari-Lou A Aug 10 '13 at 17:03
I think Google Books needs to be somewhere in the "What's a general reference?" conversation. (For that matter, perhaps Google does, too – although maybe that's considered too obvious?) In a question that says something like "Is throw me into the briar patch a common expression?", the O.P. should probably at least check out where it's been used in books before asking. – J.R. Sep 15 '13 at 11:31
The online corpora are fine if you know what you are doing, but can be a little daunting for people who have not used this type of thing before. Those wishing simply to know how native speakers have used a word before may be better off with – tunny Nov 5 '14 at 11:40


Useful for finding synonyms of specific words.


General Language and English Language Reference

  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of the English Language, 2nd ed. 2003.
  • The Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language, 3rd ed. 2010.

Both are written and edited by David Crystal. They should be in every Anglophone classroom in the world, and should be consulted first about questions bearing on English.

All works by David Crystal are trustworthy, but these encyclopedias are really well-organized, and full of useful information.

John, the third edition of the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language was published in 2010. – Alex B. May 19 '12 at 23:18
Really? That's terrific. No doubt it's even better and more up to date. I'll have to get one. Thanks. – John Lawler May 19 '12 at 23:32
Hello, these are very important resources to help us in polishing English. Is there any source for punctuating the sentences in a better way? – I don't know who I am. May 27 at 3:21


The guidelines governing the presentation of written English are collectively referred to as style, and laid out in various rulebooks and manuals. The purpose of these guidelines is to provide a uniform presentation, to improve readability and as a mark of professionalism. Some industries, such as screenwriting, use specific formats, but any individual organization or even an individual publication can enforce a house style. If a writer has not been directed to follow a particular style or other guidelines, s/he is encouraged to choose a suitable style and be consistent in its use.

For example, organizations and editors may differ, for example, on whether to hyphenate African American, if toward should be capitalized in a title, when to use USSR as opposed to Soviet Union, cases where Hellenic should be used instead of Greek, or whether and when to spell adviser as advisor. Because many such questions of punctuation, capitalization, abbreviation, citation, diction, and even spelling can only be answered within a narrow context, many questions about these topics posted to EL&U will be closed as primarily opinion-based, or for demonstrating a lack of basic research.

A collection of online style guides is provided by, providing a search engine and the ability to sort style guides by field and by name.

General Style Guides

Of the most popular general style guides, only Oxford and Chicago are available online, and only with a subscription.

Academic Style Guides

  • MLA (Modern Language Association) Style is widely used in arts and humanities academia. Official MLA Style publications (the Handbook and the Style Manual) are not available online; however, an MLA Formatting and Style Guide is provided by the Online Writing Lab at Purdue University.
  • APA Style, developed by the American Psychological Association, is widely used in the social sciences. A subscription is required for the style guide, but the citation style is accessible at the Purdue OWL.
  • MHRA Style is governed by the Modern Humanities Research Association, and commonly preferred for theses in UK universities.
  • The AMA Manual of Style requires a subscription; it is widely used in medicine and science.
  • Scientific Style and Format, the manual for CSE Style, requires a subscription. It is widely used in scientific publishing.

Journalist Style Guides

Governmental Style Guides

Note: No government of any major English-speaking country attempts to enforce English style or usage as a matter of law or regulation. These guides are published mainly for writers in the employ of the respective governmental office or body.


Older style guides tend to be strongly prescriptive, that is, flatly asserting that certain usages are wrong even if they are widely used and well-understood. Some recommendations or cautions have been transformed and transmitted over the years as "rules" that are rejected by professional writers and linguists alike, such as the prejudice against the passive voice or against ending sentences with prepositions. Therefore, writers must be cautious about the stylistic advice given in popular guides like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style, or older editions of Fowler's.

Grammar and Style are completely different categories and should have separate entries. The last three entries on the list above contain no useful information on English grammar, and to say that Strunk and White "has too many controversial rules to be definitive" is a massive understatement. – John Lawler May 18 '12 at 18:46
@JohnLawler: Thanks for your comments...please feel free to edit. I realize that grammar and style are not the same, but there is somewhat of a tendency to lump them together. Also, I didn't feel like there were enough entries for either to warrant a single entry. If you know of other resources, please add. – Mitch May 18 '12 at 19:29
Style should be off topic! – curiousdannii Nov 17 '14 at 23:28
@curiousdannii it depends on what is meant by style. The things in those books are probably fair game, do you think? – Mitch Nov 17 '14 at 23:49
@Mitch I don't think I've seen a single good style question here. But it is a pet hate. – curiousdannii Nov 17 '14 at 23:51
@choster Nice additions! – Mitch Dec 4 '14 at 23:31


Dictionaries and Lexica

  • Linguee - a search engine rather than an automatic translator, Linguee allows the user to find words and phrases in context in human-translated works, in addition to an editorial dictionary.
  • - a language project by Andreas Schroeter and Patrick Uecker and sponsored by Langenscheidt providing 39 bilingual dictionaries for 28 languages.
  • IATE - provides official translations of terminology as used by EU institutions, maintained by the Translation Centre for the Bodies of the European Union.
  • Termium Plus - provides official translations of the Canadian government into Canadian English and Canadian French

Machine Translations

Machine translations are generated by computer software which compares parallel texts produced by human translators and attempts to identify patterns and apply them to submitted text. The result can be helpful for short, simple text, but is often inaccurate, unidiomatic, or flat-out incorrect, and so should be used with caution.

IATE is a fantastic resource for technical language. – Nemo Nov 16 '15 at 9:37


  • McCawley's The Syntactic Phenomena of English. It turns out that the first three chapters of this classic 1998 grammar are available free on Google Books. The rest of the book is not.

This seems to be very good marketing for University of Chicago Press, or whoever made this decision, because it gives a good and useful sample of what's in the book. The first three chapters are the general ones, where the author lays out the methodology, definitions, examples, and tests for syntax. They're all most people need to read; the other chapters are specialized on individual construction types and other issues.

These chapters consist of

1. (pp 1-10) Introduction
2. (pp 11-54) Overview of the Scheme of Syntactic Analysis Adopted Below
3. (pp 55-81) Some Tests for Deep and Surface Constituent Structure

There are useful tree diagrams and excellent example sentences throughout. Anyone familiar with what's in these three chapters has gone a long way toward mastering English syntax.

McCawley's book is very clear, but it is a technical scientific work intended as a college textbook for a year-long course. It's not necessary to understand linguistics to benefit from the book; however, readers will have to understand that spoken English is what grammar, and therefore this book, is about. There is no treatment of spelling, punctuation, or "correct" grammar, for instance. These are not syntactic phenomena, but social ones.

  • Pullum and Huddleston's Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. The gigantic (1856 pages) and magisterial 2002 edition is also available online in a number of formats, including Kindle and pdf with text. I recommend the latter format, since it allows searching, and is readable on practically any device.

Huddleston and Pullum covers everything -- including, for example, a chapter on punctuation by Geoffrey Nunberg -- and introduces a number of terminological innovations that may become widely-accepted in a while; my advice is to be wary of the terminology -- learn it, and learn the alternative terms as well. They are discussed as they are introduced.

E.g, what McCawley calls a "restrictive relative clause", Pullum and Huddleston call an "essential relative clause"; what McC calls a "particle" up in phrasal verbs like pick up, P&H call an "intransitive preposition" up. You will find both sets of terms (among many others, from all over the world) used here on EL&U.

Thanks for the link. – Timere May 4 '15 at 4:21
Is terminological innovation a terminological innovation for new term? ;) – Dan Bron Jul 16 '15 at 23:07
Substitute term, anyway. I understand Geoff's reasoning, and I like the idea of intransitive prepositions; but the more terminology is introduced, the denser the reading becomes, because you're always having to remember what's what. – John Lawler Jul 16 '15 at 23:29
Are you seriously saying that for a question to not be 'off topic', it needs to not be answered somewhere in the 1856 pages of CGEL? Wouldn't this make this forum something like "Bafflingly Obscure Questions That Have Never Been Tackled Publicly In The Prior History Of Grammar and Linguistics"? Is that the true intention of this forum? (By the way, the link you give doesn't work.) – Dunsanist Jun 20 at 10:12
@Dunsanist: No, I don't seriously mean that, because I can't understand what it means. There are at least three negatives in in order for a question to not be "off topic", it needs to not be answered in .. CGEL. As Horn says, "Duplex negatio confirmat; triplex negatio confusat." I'm not interested in whether something is 'off topic' here or not, since there are very few useful or consistent standards for that designation. It's political, not intellectual. – John Lawler Jun 20 at 14:25
Okay, "Is a question 'off topic' if the answer can be deduced by consulting the 1856 pages of CGEL?" As for 'political'--I would read 'arbitrary', and looking at questions on this forum many are plaintive ones along the lines of "Why was I off topic?" – Dunsanist Jun 23 at 14:49
@Dunsanist: don't ask me. I don't know. And I don't care. This is a free service, and its standards are its own business. The problem seems (to me) to be that there are way too many junk questions -- you can make your own definitions -- and it would seem fair if there were some non-judgemental way to get them out of the way. But there isn't any, though people keep trying. – John Lawler Jun 23 at 15:10

Okay, I guess I should have added my answers here instead of above in the comments. So, I'll try again. gives all the source references on one page, from English and slang to science, computing, and medical dictionaries, including History and Origin, all from specific dictionaries. It includes nearby words, related searches, and all words from the root. gives rhymes, thesaurus, similar sounding words, quotations, homophones, letter matching search, pictures, and even Shakespeare references. It has links to the Bible books, and famous quotes, and several links to specific genres produced by Shakespeare. I use this site almost daily.

The Purdue OWL is an Online Writing Lab for tutoring or learning to writing well in English. I recommend taking a look, also, at the OWL site map to see the range of subjects covered.

I recommend the site EngVid for clearing up questions about grammar rules, and other English language dilemmas. There are videos for over 500 subjects on that site, all related to English. Some people learn better through watching demonstrations on whiteboard. These videos work well for tutoring, too.

I also believe you need a link to the Middle English Dictionary. It may be an obscure language, but we still study the Canterbury Tales by Chaucer, and John Gower's Confessio Amantis.



For the word you search, it has:

  • Nouns
  • Adverbs
  • Verbs
  • Adjectives
  • Synonyms
  • Antonyms
  • Fuzzynyms
can this be categorized somewhere? – erich May 9 '15 at 11:41

Dissection or Parse of Sentences

Courtesy of, I encountered the Link Parser.


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