Online vs. Print Dictionary

More and more dictionary users prefer online over print for speed and convenience. Accessing an online dictionary by typing in a word is much faster than thumbing through the pages in the print edition. While the smallest unit of a print dictionary might be 1,000 pages due to its unisequential design, the smallest unit of an online dictionary depends on the hardware resource (the bigger the space the more information is stored) due to its multisequential design.

Because of its linear, unisequential design, print dictionary is standardized based on alphabetical order. To look up a word, the users need to flip to the first letter of the word and then go to the next letter until they find the word they are searching for. Because of its non-linear, multisequential design, online dictionary is standardized based on word input. In her book, Inventing the Medium, Janet Murray argues:

Programmable bits can imitate legacy media and present unisequential documents and film clips, but they are particularly well suited to more complex multisequential objects that can be assembled and navigated in more than one order. Computational structures allow us to describe entities as variables that can have different values at different times, and to make conditional statements that have more than one possible outcome (Page 53).

In print, to know what items are available users simply have to look them up and make sure that they didn’t miss or misspell the word. In online, the application would tell the users if the items are available. It would also make suggestions if the users misspelled the word. The suggestion alone (something like, “Did you mean…”) saves the users time and confusion.

How items are chosen for inclusion depend on their usage. According to Merriam-Webster dictionary:

To decide which words to include in the dictionary and to determine what they mean, Merriam-Webster editors study the language as it’s used. They carefully monitor which words people use most often and how they use them.

In term of reliable information, users should use resources they trust. For example, if they trust the Merriam-Webster dictionary, they should use the same source for both online and print. In term of availability, the print edition is much more reliable. The online version relies on the connection to the Internet and the usage of the server. Users may experience slowness and unreliability if the connection is weak, the server is flushed with traffic or the application is not optimized for performance.

In print, updates only get pushed once in a few years. Cost for printing is the reason. Furthermore, making corrections are even slower in print. For online, updates are simply a click of a button. The online dictionary could be updated any time and the users would get the immediate change, which is a huge advantage of online over print dictionary.

As someone who works and spends most of the time on the web, I choose to use digital over traditional dictionary. I prefer the speed and the multisequential objects of the digital media. At times I just type in the word that I am not sure of to get suggestions to the right word. And because the thesaurus is a tab away, I could get to the synonyms and the antonyms with one click rather than putting down the paper dictionary and picking up the paper thesaurus. In the past year or so, however, I don’t use the online edition as much as I used to because all of the dictionary sites are filled with ads. Dictionary.com, in particular, sometimes makes me click on the ad first before I could access the search box.

According to Murray, “The biggest different between the computer and earlier media of representation is its procedural property, its ability to represent and execute conditional behaviors.” As I have mentioned above, the online dictionary uses procedural medium to response to its users. The online dictionary would present the definition if it recognizes the word or make a suggestion to the word the users might be looking for. As for the use of the participatory medium, the online dictionary allows users to interact with the information such as clicking on the link to read more definition or click on the tab to read its synonyms and antonyms. In term of spatial affordances, the use of visual cue of the audio icon is highly effective. The audio pronunciation is extremely useful for words that are hard to say as well as for foreigners, like myself, whose English is a second language. This use of spatial affordance can’t be accomplished through the print dictionary.

(Second essay for Graduate Design Seminar)

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