Monday, 31 October 2011

Book Review: 'Oxford Learner's Thesaurus' - Editor: Diana Lea

Oxford Learner's Thesaurus
a dictionary of synonyms
Chief Editor: Diana Lea
Oxford University Press 2008
ISBN 9780194752008

Publisher's Website
From the blurb: "No two words are exactly the same. This is the learner's thesaurus that explains the difference."

My mind was so strongly drawn to the phrase 'a dictionary of symptoms' from a frequently referred to  childhood volume as I read the title of this book that I had to do a double take. Such is the power of collocation and association. This book deals with synonyms, however, and does so very competently.

It's probably the first of its kind I've had the chance to look at in detail, and like its Advanced Learner's Dictionary big brothers, it puts the language student right at the centre of the user experience. Everything is designed to allow learners get to the heart of the difference between any two given words of scarily similar meaning. Let me take you through more of the back cover blurb before I go any further.
"Essential or indispensable? See which words are used most frequently and choose the most appropriate."
Each head word is followed by a list of similar words in order of frequency across a ranges of contexts.
"Choice or selection? Take your pick! Choose the words that are right for the context: formal/informal, written/spoken, approving/disapproving."
The descriptions include plenty of useful hints to help learners get just the right word, and there are two or three real English examples to illustrate their unique features.
"Reap the benefits - Understand which words go together and use them correctly."
There's a very useful list after each group of near synonyms showing what can collocate with what, a notorious problem for learners.
"Important or significant? Use the 4,000 notes to identify the exact difference between pairs of synonyms."
Lots of little blue boxes describe in clear prose the subtle differences between particularly tricky groupings (try studious, learned and scholarly, for example).
"Is there a better word than 'nice'? Find the words to express exactly what you mean - and make your writing worth reading."
The danger for word-lovers like myself with a book like the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus is that you'll never get anything written, as you go of on wonderful tangents of tangents, making lots of lovely serendipitous discoveries that have nothing to do with what you're actually supposed to be getting on with!

Marvellous. Just as it should be, but let me finish with a few comments on what I particularly like about this book.

First of all, it's clearly aimed at scholars, or let's say seriously studious types who have the time, and more importantly the inclination and level to search through the vast web of interconnections to try to move their English up to the next level, and quite an exalted level it could be too, if they manage to uncover the precise meaning they're looking for.

The little blue box notes already mentioned are very helpful, and you experience that strange feeling when learning about the underbelly of the language you actually know perfectly well how to speak and yet can help  being interested in the explanation anyway.
 NOTE  GREET OR WELCOME? You greet someone when you say hello to them, usually, but not always, in a friendly way. You might greet sb in the street or when they come to visit you. You welcome sb when they come to visit you or when they return home after being away for a long time. You make a special effort to show them that you are happy that they are with you, and to make them feel happy to be with you, or to be home.
The Thesaurus Trainer is a really good feature to get you in the mood for using the book by not only explaining how it works but giving teaching you through actual exercises which are interesting in themselves for any logophile. It's nine solid pages long, introducing you to all the main concepts covered in the dictionary, including frequent words, phrasal verbs and idioms, synonym scales, patterns and collocations, meaning, grammar, register, use, opposites, derivatives and so on.

It suddenly occurred to me that only one word in each synonym group actually had a headword entry. What happens is that you look up your main word in the back and get directed to the appropriate synonym group in the main body of the book. Easy.

Tucked away at the back are a series of 'study pages' based on themes like green issues, work and jobs and travel and tourism, with lots of exercises to beaver away at. Do people ever actually do these things (is a question I always ask myself) I wonder, but they're there if you want them.

Then comes a series of 'topic maps' showing how words on various topics like sport and leisure, the media and fact and opinion fit together, along with a page of exercises for each one. I've always felt that these supplementary sections which crept into traditional dictionaries a few years ago are always a bit arbitrary, despite certain dictionary publishers trying to convince me otherwise. Be that as it may, it's nice to have a bit of light relief, with a few pictures and boxes and stuff.

You get the answers to the exercises, logically, and a topic index for the headwords tie up the print part of the package.

Because guess what, internet friends..? There's a CD-ROM with the whole dictionary on it, and in case you haven't had enough of them already... another 250 exercises to get your mouses into.

If I had more minutes I'd amuse myself by looking up all my favourite smutty arcane words and seeing what they have to suggest, but alas time does not allow. So suffice it to say that I love this book and for those enthusiasts who need to take their English to the next level of sophistication, the Oxford Learner's Thesaurus should definitely be on the shelf just above their desk.

Probably the biggest compliment I could pay, and I also tend to say this about advanced learner's dictionaries too, is that I far prefer these books to those targeted at native speakers, for their clarity, modernity and user-friendliness.

To sum up, this book is great, cool, fantastic, fabulous, terrific, brilliant, tremendous, awesome and... wicked - take it from the OLT!

Sab Will is, or has been, a freelance teacher, teacher trainer, director of studies, ELT writer, fanatical blogger, Facebook freak and website weirdo. He is also a well-known street photographer, abstract artist, poet and Paris city chronicler. The 'well-known' bit only applies to those who know him well, however.
Hotch Potch English: 'The ELT Resources Review Blog' ~ Book Review: "Oxford Learner's Thesaurus"
© 2011 Sab Will / Hotch Potch English

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