It has been a while now since I opened a paper dictionary to translate words from a language to another. I still have two paper dictionaries at home: one for English-French translations and one for Italian-French translations. It has been a while since I opened one of these two dictionaries since I have access to the Internet.

I read this article but to me, online dictionaries have the advantage of being updated with new words every now and then and in addition, they are free.

When/Where can these dictionaries still be useful? Does a paper dictionary has an added value compared to the online ones?


7 Answers 7


It takes much more time to find the translation in a paper dictionary than in a digital dictionary. So, your subconscious could "think": "It took so much time to find the meaning of that word - it would be better not to forget the meaning of that word". While you will be searching for the particular word, you will be unconsciously preparing for learning and remembering that word. So, it could be more effective.

Another paper dictionary advantage: it doesn't need electricity. So, if you will be somewhere without electricity, you still will have your dictionary.

Paper dictionaries are useful if rules of particular place ban electronic devices (for example, some Avia companies ban any electronic devices during landing). Another example: electronic devices are banned on ACM International Collegiate Programming Contest (only computers, given by organization committee are allowed), but you can use an electronic dictionary.


The advantage of an online dictionary is pretty clear: fast lookup, more information and media for an entry, always updated, zero weight, sharable, free. In fact, for the purpose of looking up a word solely, I believe that there is no way a physical dictionary is better than its digital counterpart. In fact, all of the reasons of the link you gave cannot buy me a thing, except the number 6:

The sheer density of knowledge held in your hands, in print, is an amazing feeling. The nostalgia of a big, paper book is also comforting and uplifting.

An amazing feeling is definitely not what you care when you looking up the word. When you look up a word, you only care about getting thing done, not caring about getting yourself immersed to the feeling of curiosity. However, being curiosity is important, especially when you don't always use the language you learn. Even if you don't take the dictionaries down, when your eyes see it by chance, your brain will recall your memory related with that language. It can be about the country you have visited or a friend speaks that language, for example. Those memories are not directly help you improve the language, but it will help you to not forget it. You can think about the dictionary as a good ad, an ad not about a brand but about your memory. Or if you want your kids to get enthusiastic in learning the language, you can use the dictionary to "activate their curiosity", either in a passive way (just put it where they can see it frequently), or in an active way (tell them some related thing that you know).

Moreover, a definition in the digital dictionary is barely information lying in the screen, which is only perceived by your eyes. The paper dictionary can carry more characteristics that can be felt by other sensory senses: the weight, the texture, the smell of papers, the turning of the book, etc. You have to use other channels of perceiving besides your eyes and fingers to perceive it. This again cannot help you understand the definition easier, but it can help you strengthen your memory once you know the definition. However, I would argue that the best way to remember a word is using it constantly, and the amount of information contained in an entry and in other sources that contain the word is probably more than what your senses can perceive when using the paper book. Nevertheless, those information cannot make the nostalgia feeling.

The advantage of physical dictionaries is in these situations. Not just dictionary but any digital tool is very convenient and powerful when you need to get thing done, but it also means that it will be invisible when you don't need it. By contrast, a physical one is not that strong, but can help you to get motivated to do that thing, because we haven't evolved yet to get used to the digital tools. And getting motivated is a very important step to getting thing done.

  • The best paper dictionaries are created by teams of linguists (people with a degree in linguistics) based on a text corpus. You can usually find out who created the dictionary. With online dictionaries and dictionary apps, it is often much less clear who created the entries, what the competence of the dictionary compilers is and what sources they used to choose their entries and definitions. So the first advantages are credibility and reliability. This argument does not apply to online dictionaries that were originally based on printed dictionaries and are updated according to the same principles as the paper dictionary. Examples include the online English dictionaries by Collins, Oxford and Cambridge, the online German dictionary by Duden, the online Dutch dictionary by Van Dale, etc.
  • Good paper dictionaries often provide types of information that are not provided by many online dictionaries (when not based on printed dictionaries, see above), e.g. usage examples and grammatical information. Online dictionaries are often basically word lists with translations. (So I disagree with Armfoot on this point.)
  • All learner's dictionaries that I am aware of are printed dictionaries (or printed dictionaries converted to an online dictionary).
  • Obviously, a printed dictionary does not require a computer or a smartphone or an Internet connection.

I am aware of several advantages of online dictionaries over paper dictionaries, but that is not what this question asked for ;-)


Of course there are the obvious advantages: a paper dictionary doesn't require any electricity or internet connection, and it won't crash due to some hardware or software glitch (as my dictionary apps often do). But another thing I like about paper dictionaries is that when I look up a word, I see the words directly above and below it as well. These words are often related to the word I'm looking for, and that helps to understand the meaning of the root word, and other ways it is used; for example, if I look up the Spanish word "global", I will also see "globalización", "globalizar", and "globalmente". Or I just come across a word that is interesting, so I learn it on accident; that's always fun :-). The English-Spanish dictionary I have also includes idiomatic expressions containing the word: for example, if you look up "track", you will find the translations of various meanings of "track", with example sentences, as well as the Spanish equivalent of the idioms "have a one-track mind" and "to lose track of somebody". Which admittedly doesn't say much about the advantages of paper dictionaries in general, only that one in particular.


If you use a smartphone, it's more practical to install a dictionary application in it. Besides the obvious portability advantages over both PC and paper based dictionaries, there are a few that I'd like to highlight according to my own experience while learning Chinese:

  1. No internet connection required: most of these applications are relatively small and have more words in their files than most paper dictionaries;
  2. An Optical Character Recognizer (OCR) allows you to use the smartphone camera over any sequence of characters written in billboards/papers/screens to automatically present you the words involved;
  3. Words combinations often result in different meanings: even several online dictionaries may not detect the associations.
  4. Clipboard readers: if you are reading a website in your smartphone, you can just copy an entire text and by tapping words from the text in the application, small pop-ups are presented with the definitions without hiding the rest of the text.
  5. Language usage examples: paper dictionaries normally lack of these and they are extremely useful for learning usage contexts.
  6. Possibility of having multiple dictionaries and multilingual translations embedded in the same application: I often consult different dictionaries for one specific word in the same application, not only for providing more synonyms but for checking the contexts they might be used in.
  7. Characters drawing: for non-Latin alphabet based languages, this allows you not only to memorize how you should write the character (strokes order, their dimensions and positions in the character) as well, with practice, it's much faster than typing them with the keyboard.
  8. Speech recognition: if you are communicating with natives, this is a quick way to identify particular terms you are not familiar with.

Answering your question: I used to know a librarian that seemed to have memorized every words' position in her paper dictionary, she would take less than 3 seconds to pinpoint any word you may ask of her. While this is an awesome skill (specially to watch being performed), it is only practically useful when your dictionary is among your study books on a desk... As Ooker mentioned, this librarian developed an excellent memory for locating words, but in most cases, she needed to reread the definitions. You may take the same amount of time as her to find any word in a smartphone application and have better results from it, while saving money, time and the environment (paper = cut down trees), by opting not to buy paper dictionaries.

Unless you are in one of those rare schools that allows you to use a paper dictionary in a test (or in one of those more common schools that does not allow you to touch your smartphone in classes), comparatively, there are no advantages of using a paper dictionary over a good application.


First of all, we know that dictionaries are a useful tool to every teacher, translator or student, we may say why are they important?

We may compare paper and online dictionaries, both of them are very useful, but there are many advantages talking about online ones, they are so practical, you can have them in a smart device or also you can use them on the internet, they are cheap because most of the times you don't have to pay for them, thay can ve updated every specific time to have enough information to make better people's work.

On the other hand we have paper ones, they are nice and great because most of them are reliable in the information or meanings or even translations of some words we need, they have lots of things inside of them, a disadvantage could be that they are so heavy and sometimes you don't take them to avoid that extra weight in your bags.

Finally I may say that both are useful but in my personal opinion I would use for make easier my everyday an online one but to be more professional or reliable in what I am saying I would use a paper one.


I learned English with paper dictionary before internet.

I used two tricks:

  • tape with bookmark where each letter stars, to find word 1 second faster,
  • marking with a pencil dot the word I found. If word has 3 dots, and you still don't remember it, write it down for cramming (but usually second dot is enough).

Because searching word has a cost, your brain will put more effort to remember the word as compared when searching for it is cheaper.

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