The Shorter Oxford English Dictionary: A Better Mac Dictionary

If you, like me, are a word nerd, there’s a good chance that you’ve already run a search for ‘dictionary’ in the Mac App Store. Doing so brings up a number of dictionaries in various languages, a few games, language courses, and a surprisingly small number of English dictionaries. Perhaps developers know that all Macs are shipped with the New Oxford American Dictionary baked right into the operating system, so they shy away from duplication.

Unfortunately, the truth is that the built-in dictionary app is limited – likely adequate most of the time, but still limited. For this reason, now and then you might find yourself calling upon a higher authority and refer to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, which is widely held to be among the world’s best and most definitive references. That’s when you’ll be glad that WordWeb Software has brought this tome to the App Store.

Join us after the jump for a look at how the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary works, and how it might be a useful and even enjoyable addition to your Mac.

Getting started

Once you’ve downloaded the Shorter Oxford Dictionary from the App Store, its two volume icon will rest in your dock. It’s a pretty hefty download, as you’d expect of such an authoritative and substantial source, coming in at 150mb. Let’s start with the headline information:

  • the app includes over 600,000 words, phrases, and definitions
  • over 80,000 illustrative quotations showing words in use
  • 85,000 recordings of spoken pronunciations
  • 100,000 etymologies (fun!)
  • full text search, including pattern search for when you’re uncertain of a spelling, and bookmarking.

The basic app window consists of three sections: a wide search bar across the top with back and forward arrows to help you move through previous searches, a word list down the left hand side, and definition text on the right.

Main window

Main application window

As you type in the search bar, the app offers possible matches:


Live search suggestions

How it works

Look up a word, and the right hand panel displays a definition and variations, phrases demonstrating the word in use (when available), and a brief outline of the word’s origin. Then words are in transition, with their primary meaning shifting – ‘Tweet’ anyone? – there will also appear a discussion of ‘Word Trends’, which is usually both informative and entertaining.

Within the definition text, words that are themselves definable in the app can be clicked in order to jump to their definition. There is also a setting in the app’s Preferences that allows you to toggle underlining of such words:

underlined links

Definable words can be underlined

In cases, as above, where words have more than one sense, you’ll notice that some numbers have appeared at the top right of the main window. Click on these to jump to the alternative senses.

Accessing thousands of spoken pronunciations is easy: click on either the musical note alongside the defined word, or on the speaker icon alongside the search bar. I found at first that I couldn’t hear the pronunciations, but with the developer’s help I tracked this down to the fact that the recordings are played back as Alert sounds rather than as ordinary audio, and I needed to increase the Alert volume in the Sound Preference Pane.

sound preference pane

Look here if you have any difficulties hearing definitions

Where there is no spoken audio, you can often see a helpful guide to pronunciation by clicking on the phonetic guide next to the word. This will display an overlay guiding you in correct pronunciation.

pronunciation guide

Easy pronunciation guides at a click

Essential for those with little ones, there is an option in Preferences to block the display of vulgar or offensive words, and to exclude them from the list of suggested words. This setting is on by default (Switching it off gives access to a whole lot of other words, reminding us how much of English derives from the Anglo-Saxon tradition!).

Pattern Search

The pattern search feature allows you to find variations on words. So, searching for ‘*dog’ brings up 115 matches, ranging from ‘Australian cattle dog’ to ‘yellow dog’; and ‘d?g’ gives 5 possible matches, including ‘dog’. Of course, such pattern matching comes into its own when you’re looking for longer words – say when you’re trying to complete a crossword puzzle and have only the third and fifth letter:

pattern search

Wildcards and pattern searching make it easy to find words

The placeholders for pattern search are as follows:

  • * for multiple characters
  • ? for single characters
  • @ for vowels
  • # for consonants

The app includes a full text search, so that you can find all instances of particular words or phrases. You can hone this by combining words with basic Boolean ‘and/or/not’ operators.

full text search

Full text search helps you dig deeper

In use

Most users don’t want a dictionary to draw attention to itself. It’s meant to be a more or less transparent reference, from which you can learn what you need when you need it, and then return to what you were doing quite quickly. We’ve probably all read sections of dictionaries at one time or another – either out of interest, because we wanted to learn something in particular, because we simply found ourselves hooked and time passed, or because we have some form of OCD. Mostly, though, we tend to dip in, get what we need, and then close the dictionary and move on.

OS X’s built-in New Oxford American Dictionary is a great example of an unobtrusive reference. Whenever you want to define a word, you simply select the word and hit [cmd]+[ctrl]+[d], and there’s your definition in an elegant tooltip.

dictionary tooltip

An elegant tooltip definition

So why would you bother with another dictionary? Well, take ‘tooltip’:

Empty definitio

Sad face, downward-pointing mouth

By contrast, select the word, ctrl-click, and select ‘Shorter Oxford English Dictionary’ from the Services menu, and… Well, oddly, you’ll get nothing. But I’m about to go on to talk about some other offerings from WordWeb Software, including their Oxford Dictionary of English – and instead using the Service for looking up words in that app, you’ll get this definition:

tooltip defined

Ah, that's better

(The reason for this disparity between the Oxford Dictionary of English and Shorter Oxford English Dictionary is that the former has been updated more recently – and so you will find some words here that haven’t yet made their way into the SOED.)

The range of words it includes is, of course, the most compelling reason to go with a standalone dictionary. Since the built-in dictionary includes pattern searching and etymologies those are not arguments for switching. And, in fact, the New Oxford American Dictionary is a much better looking app, while the Shorter Oxford is functional, but inelegant.

dictionaries side-by-side

Compare and contrast


The eagle-eyed among you may have noted that in all the screenshots there are two tabs: one titled SOED, the other ODE. This is because I have both the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English installed. The Shorter Oxford is more extensive, but, at $32.99/£22.99 also more expensive.

The Oxford Dictionary of English is just $9.99/£6.99, and works in exactly the same way, but includes only:

  • 350,000 words, phrases, and definitions
  • 67,000 examples of words in use
  • 75,000 spoken pronunciations
  • 11,000 encyclopaedic entries
  • and the same pattern search, bookmarking, and history features.

If you have both dictionaries installed, they both show up in this tabbed interface, so you can compare definitions very easily. The Oxford Dictionary of English certainly gives you enough to get by, but in most cases, the Shorter Oxford Dictionary has much greater depth:

Definitions compared

SOED vs ODE: who's the daddy?

An even cheaper option, which interfaces in the same way as the two Oxford dictionaries is WordWeb Pro ($4.99/£2.99). This offers fewer definitions, but remains a very useful tool, and has a bigger dictionary than the New Oxford American Dictionary.


If you love words and appreciate a good reference book, then you will enjoy the Shorter Oxford Dictionary. It’s a venerable and definitive text. The app works well, though its interface lacks some polish. And since it’s so simple to access via your Mac’s Services menu (and – bonus! – via Launchbar if you have it installed), you can use it just as easily as the native dictionary. I don’t see myself going back. I’m delighted to have the Shorter Oxford on my Mac, and I’ve used it several times each day since I installed it a few weeks back.

What do you think? Would you pay for a dictionary app, when your computer ships with an at-least adequate one already, and when you can have online access to any number of dictionary sites for free?


An English Dictionary with several benefits over the built-in OS X dictionary.