Criteria for Evaluating an Electronic Dictionary
We can summarize the above-mentioned aspects to focus on specific user groups, use cases and search methods. Most importantly, however, dictionaries can be primarily characterized by the types of lexicographic information they provide. These may include translations, definitions, parts of speech, explanations of grammatical particles, measure words or noun classifiers, treatment of polyphonic characters, example sentences (which can be retrieved from real world language corpora or contrived by the editors), pragmatic suggestions and verb valencies. More fundamentally, dictionaries can distinguish between characters 字, compound words 詞 and phrases 辭. They can pay attention to neologisms, proper names (people or places), idioms, common errors, slang, semantic relations like hyponyms, hyperonyms, meronyms, synonyms or antonyms, level or register of language, colloquial vs. written styles, etymology, dialect usage and periodization, and specialized lexical domains (for example, the trilingual French-English-Chinese International Dictionary of Refrigeration) that one would find on the bookshelves of a well-stocked bookshop in China. Some digital lexica give citations for printed reference works, distinguish traditional and simplified characters, and/or offer results regardless of form. Others focus on quotations, insults, rhetorical devices or rhymes; the list is virtually endless.
As further criteria to evaluate electronic dictionaries, we should look at the licensing and price policy. Does an open collaborative project ensure that it will always be free of charge? Will updates or subsequent versions be free for those who have already bought a license? Will the license purchased for one operating system include licenses for versions for another OS, or for one’s mobile phone?
As far as usability is concerned, one might judge by the number of necessary mouse-clicks, the degree of internal and external hyperlinking, the use and customizability of colors, font sizes, arrangement and types of results, the language of the framework application and many more criteria. Some dictionary applications offer a wealth of extra features that we can only hint at here. Does the application make use of the statistics users generate and self-customize? How easily can one sync personal data like user-created entries, frequent compounds, flashcard stats and so on, and do they work with other installations of the same application? Does the application keep a record of the search terms to make memorization more efficient? How well does the application integrate with other programs? (This criterion is especially important for pop-up dictionaries that work inside browsers, word processing and spreadsheet applications, and sometimes the operating system itself.)
Ultimately, each user must judge an electronic dictionary or digital lexical tool based upon his/her individual needs, goals and usage patterns. Thankfully, many recent lexica and digital tools allow for a wide range of customizations, designed to better serve the increasingly disparate needs of our rapidly growing and ever more diverse communities of users.