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There are two main kinds of dictionary: standard and learner's. The standard dictionary is made mainly for native speakers, where readers are expected to be fluent in the language. The learner's, as we expected, is mainly made for foreign learners, and its definition of each word is simpler and restricted to core vocabulary.

For example, let's take a look at the word ostentatious in Merriam - Webster Dictionary:

  • Simple definition: displaying wealth, knowledge, etc., in a way that is meant to attract attention, admiration, or envy
  • Full definition: marked by or fond of conspicuous or vainglorious and sometimes pretentious display

My (English) vocabulary is wide enough to understand most contexts, yet I still find it's hard to fully understand the full definition of the word, though I can guess its meaning. Even if I spend time to look up conspicuous or vainglorious to really understand their meanings, I still have the feeling that I won't reach the satisfaction of understanding the word from reading the simple definition.

Question: What advantages do standard dictionaries have over learners' dictionaries? I think the only possible thing is the trade-off of correctness in the simple definition; but even so, a simple definition should define the word correctly because it is still a definition.

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    I wonder if the compilers of M-W were having a little joke when they wrote that rather ostentiatious full definition of "ostentatious". – alephzero Jun 12 '16 at 18:35
  • Nice, this question is now a Hot Network Question! – Anthony Pham Jun 12 '16 at 21:50
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a simple definition is still a definition, and it should define the word correctly.

I'd shy away from "correctly" and say instead that the simple definition is intended to define the word acceptably. In your example, one difference you can see is that the full definition tries harder to express the exact connotation and use of the word. It might be easier to see this if we adapt those definitions to a made-up word with a shorter definition:

ostenpicklous

  • Simple definition: eating pickles
  • Full definition: marked by, or fond of, pickle eating

So saying a person or thing is ostenpicklous can be understood acceptably as meaning that they eat pickles. But just reading the simple definition, you might not understand that the word is* used to express what a person likes, or what qualities make a person or thing unique. The simple definition makes it sound like it's about what someone or something is currently or habitually doing, which might be close enough, but is not quite the same.

Each dictionary has different standards for what is an acceptable definition, because a dictionary can't spend pages and pages discussing the usage of a single word. Like you said, there are trade-offs made. A standard dictionary might use somewhat unnatural (not everyday) grammar, and can lead you in circles trying to find the definitions of words in other definitions. But it can also give a more nuanced explanation of a word's usage than a learner's dictionary can.

*(not, because I just made it up)

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(I apologize for an informal answer, but this is what really matters for a language learner)

The difference between those is the amount of useful information per volume, when usefulness is defined per reader.

A learner needs just a brief information, not getting very deep in details. Imagine that you need a basic info about a word or a term, and instead you're offered to read a full book dedicated to this very word. When the reality is, you only need an excerpt of two or three paragraphs long.
This would be quite confusing or, at least, time-ineffective.
Also, quite obviously, learner's dictionary may simply omit some rare word.

In another situation, if you are trying to get really deep into the word/term in question.
Like the full table of its conjugations.
Like synonyms, antonyms, hyperonyms, or homonyms.
Like idiomatic expressions containing this word.
Then you may, indeed, may need a standard dictionary (or a full book!) to find what's needed.

That's the difference. There is no "right" or "wrong" approach. It's all about different readers who have different needs.

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The difference between them is the tradeoff between the level of the words used in the definitions.

A simple definition is well... simple. It uses low level words in order to easily convey definitions of words that can be understood by most people. Lots of times this is preferred though the definition is "not as precise". This type of definition is used by lots of people who just need an easy understanding of the new word they just head of or are learning. This is the usage of a learner's dictionary: to teach learners new words in a simple way that definitions can be conveyed to them with little to no difficulty at all.

A full definition is very complex. It really demands a lot of the native and fluent speakers by using very high-level words to convey an extremely precise definition to the advanced or expert people. This type of definition is used more of to be a precision type definition rather than a simple, easy-to-understand definition. This definition is seen a standard dictionary as it explains the word thoroughly and precisely to advanced and expert people. It can also teach them lots more information about the word than a simpler dictionary like a learner's.

Thus standard dictionaries do have their advantages over learner's dictionaries:

  • More precise

  • Uses higher level words (may test your fluency)

  • Clarifies the word more thoroughly

  • Contains more information

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