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To prevent myself from asking an obvious, silly question multiple times: What are the English language tools you found most useful?

I found Corpus Concordance English extremely useful for looking up collocations.

Please, one tool per answer.

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closed as off topic by RegDwigнt Jul 25 '12 at 19:36

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Mod note: This question exists because it has historical significance, but it is not considered a good, on-topic question for this site, so please do not use it as evidence that you can ask similar questions here. Ordinarily, we would lock such a question; however, because allowing the answers to be edited and voted on greatly enhances its value, we have chosen not to do so. Please do not vote to reopen or delete this question; such actions will be reversed. –  waiwai933 Sep 17 '12 at 0:54
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More organized list on meta: List of general references. –  Andrew Grimm Jan 6 '13 at 7:34
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Hmm. Some of the awesomest questions are closed. This one is linked to from the flippin FAQ. What's the trend? Will migration ease? Will the close-gnomes mellow or militarize? Will "closed as off topic" become a badge of honor? –  BobStein-VisiBone Mar 15 '13 at 19:13
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42 Answers 42

Language Log

Language Log is a collaborative blog about language, most of whose contributors are academic linguists. It is one of the most popular blogs about linguistics, and there are often posts that directly address questions asked here. For example, there were a number of informative posts on singular they I linked to in this answer, and Mark Liberman’s post about the mythical rule forbidding beginning sentences with conjunctions was informative in this answer to the question “Why is it bad to start a sentence with and?”

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The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) is a very valuable and rich resource.

When you look up a word, for example, favorite, it provides a comprehensive account of use, history, synonyms, etc.

Note that unlike many free resources in this list, the OED requires a monthly or yearly subscription. However, your library may subscribe and this would allow you to access the OED for free.

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Wiktionary

It's great for a lot more than just definitions. It's usually the first place I go for looking up etymology, pronunciation, and often derivations/cognates of words.

The cross-connectedness of information in Wiktionary is really what sets it apart and makes it an excellent (if sometimes imperfect) resource.

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The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA)

This is a great tool for finding out how words are actually used in different registers of English, ranging from informal spoken English to formal academic written English. In this answer I used it to find out if the word prepone was used with any regularity in American English (it is not). In this answer, I used it to compare incidences of “an historic” with “a historic”, to see if one is used orders of magnitude more frequently than the other (almost four to one in favor of “a historic”).

It is also useful for researching collocates—which words frequently go with other words. For example, in this answer I used it to compare “on the bus” with “in the bus” (“in the bus” is used sometimes when the bus is stationary). In this answer I used it the part-of-speech searching ability to compare how frequently none was used with a singular and plural verb forms (two to one in favor of plural).

Overall, COCA is a very useful tool for researching how the language is actually used, not only for debunking myths about language, but also for learning something new about how the language works.

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Google

Not Google Books, Language Tools, or even word trends. I mean the search engine. If I am curious about a sentence or spelling, I search for it. If the search returns interesting results similar to what I'm writing about, the sentence was good. If it returns badly-spelled pages about unrelated topics, the sentence is no good.

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Google Books NGram Viewer

Google Books NGram Viewer displays a graph showing how those phrases have occurred in a corpus of books over the selected years.

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The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage

This book, which can be read for free using Google Books, has a lot of useful usage information that is based on research into how words are actually used (as opposed to how some usage writer would like them to be used). Their commentary was helpful to me in this answer regarding less vs. fewer. It was also useful during my research for this answer regarding usage of the word myself in non-reflexive contexts.

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British National Corpus

The British National Corpus (BNC) is a 100 million word collection of samples of written and spoken language from a wide range of sources, designed to represent a wide cross-section of current British English, both spoken and written.

Also searchable with a less elaborate interface here.

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Urban Dictionary

An invaluable and up-to-date resource for looking up slang and other words that are often absent in conventional dictionaries.

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Forvo

This is a site for hearing pronunciations of words recorded by “ordinary” people. Many words have multiple recordings in different dialects, and each recording has votes on whether others think it is good or correct.

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OneLook Reverse Dictionary

If you are looking for a word to express a given meaning, this is the place to go. For example, searching for "soul guide afterlife" returns "psychopomp", and searching for "fear long words" returns "hippopotomonstrosesquipedaliophobia".

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Etymonline is an online Etymological dictionary, very handy for tracing the origins of words. Unfortunately it tends to be very terse, sometimes to the point of ambiguity.

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Chicago Manual of Style is really useful, especially looking at the example sentences of correctly-typeset English.

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Only if you're being paid to follow it. –  John Lawler May 18 '12 at 18:48
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Practical English Usage by Michael Swan is very handy if you need to justify edits to a non-native speaker.

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Word Net

It's a lexical database of English. Nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs are grouped into sets of cognitive synonyms (synsets), each expressing a distinct concept. These "synsets" are interlinked. It's more rigorous than a normal Thesaurus, in that it tries to "pin down" every unique meaning of a word rather than just listing a bunch of synonyms with different shades of meaning.

It's a fascinating project. It's an attempt to be thorough and methodical about categorizing semantic meaning in English for use in computational linguistics and natural language processing.

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What's another word for...?

I have a minor addiction to looking up synonyms.

My condition led to the creation of a Google gadget which I will now shamelessly plug in the Google Gadget directory.

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Fowler's Modern English Usage (original book or the second edition edited by Sir Ernest Gowers) is fun to read and educational.

I don't recommend the new edition.

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Wordnik

Wordnik.com is an online dictionary and language resource that provides dictionary and thesaurus content, some of it based on print dictionaries such as the Century Dictionary, the American Heritage Dictionary, WordNet, and GCIDE. Wordnik has collected a corpus of billions of words which it uses to display example sentences, allowing it to provide information on a much larger set of words than a typical dictionary.
[Source: Wikipedia]

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Google word translation

The translation is displayed in a tooltip after you position the mouse pointer over a word. The Google Toolbar includes this feature.

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Just

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OneLook also has handy search features. For example you can search for words beginning with ver and containing speech in their definition by entering ver*:speech. –  donothingsuccessfully May 5 '12 at 17:09
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I find WordWeb invaluable

The software has a full dictionary and thesaurus for American, British, Canadian, Australian, Indian, and global English. It also provides synonyms, antonyms, related words, text & audio pronunciations for words you look up.

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Phrases in English

This site allows searching of two- to eight-word phrases from the British National Corpus.

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Project Gutenberg has tens of thousands of free ebooks. Useful for looking up old and classic texts.

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TheFreeDictionary.com used with the print layout is the currently the fastest online dictionary.

It is easy to configure it to be your word search engine in Chrome & Opera so that you don't have to type the entire URL every time you want to search the meaning of a word or phrase.

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Google Dictionary by Google is a Chrome browser extension that allows you to look up the definition of a word by just double-clicking it. (There is a similar plugin for Firefox as well.)

After double-clicking any word you get a quick pop-up definition with an icon to hear the word pronounced. It also translates foreign words and supports the following dictionaries:

  • Chinese, Simplified
  • Chinese, Traditional
  • Czech
  • Dutch
  • English
  • French
  • German
  • Greek
  • Italian
  • Klingon
  • Korean
  • Latin
  • Russian
  • Spanish
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I have an old, well-worn, pocket-sized copy of Roget's Thesaurus on my desk at work (I'm a software engineer) that I find invaluable when writing documentation and emails.

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Acronym finder

A website that provides the definitions of acronyms.

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