LINGUIST List 14.2576

Fri Sep 26 2003

Review: Lexicography/German: Beaton (1996/2001)

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  • Charley Rowe, A Practical Dictionary of German Usage

    Message 1: A Practical Dictionary of German Usage

    Date: Fri, 26 Sep 2003 17:14:51 +0000
    From: Charley Rowe <>
    Subject: A Practical Dictionary of German Usage

    Beaton, K. B. (1996/2001) A Practical Dictionary of German Usage, Oxford University Press.

    Announced at

    Charley Rowe, University of Newcastle upon Tyne

    _A practical dictionary of German usage_ is a reference book of the _Duden_ type (containing highly selective entries with full citations). It is intended for (advanced) Anglophone learners of German. However, I imagine that it could be useful for advanced German learners of English as well, as well as for professional translators.

    The book is, as explained in the author's preface, a reworking of two other reference books: Farrell's (1953) _A dictionary of German synonyms_ and Eggeling's (1961) _Dictionary of modern German prose usage_. Explanations from these two works were rewritten, and illustrative examples created afresh. The English definitions in the dictionary derive primarily from Webster's Dictionary and from the Oxford English Dictionary (OED). All entries are in English; examples are primarily in German, with occasional partial translations in English for the purpose of clarification.

    Beaton's dictionary is, for the target audience, intended to supplant the use of monolingual German dictionaries, which do not typically contain precisely the sort of information that native speakers take for granted and which learners so closely rely on. The current edition under review is the paperback version, which corrects errors in the hardback edition (1996). Included is an index of English and German terms used.

    To test the dictionary's usefulness, I used two selection strategies: (1) random selection of some entries, and (2) specific selection of certain entries I knew to be difficult for Anglophone learners of German. The results of my selections follow.

    Difficult pairs: The classically difficult _go_ (German _gehen/fahren_) is carefully and thoroughly disambiguated (e.g. in what cases can _gehen_ refer to vehicular transport?). The _noch ein/ein anderes_ 'another' gambit (an 'additional' piece of cake, versus a 'different' piece of cake) is likewise well treated, with full explanation. The less difficult _quite/ganz_ are also thoroughly explained, somewhat of a rarity for this entry. However, sorely missing is an entry for _actually_ (the _tatsaechlich/eigentlich_ pair), which even some quite proficient non-natives never fully master. An especially impressive entry is the one for 'relation' and conceptually related words (2-1/2 pages), which provides in particular an exhaustive illustration of the differences and contexts of usage of _Verhaeltnis_ and _Beziehung_. In these and similar cases, the entry concludes with a list of several (typically five or more) contrastive example sentences.

    Valency variations are nicely dealt with: _frieren, einfrieren, gefrieren,_ etc., are well explained, with relevant example sentences, for the entry _freeze_), as is the _lend/borrow_ pair.

    The entry for _know_ (_kennen, wissen, koennen, verstehen, ausscheiden, erkennen, sich auskennen_) is especially well formulated (three pages worth!), providing a grammar lesson of sorts within the entry.

    Given the space devoted to them (2 pages), the modal auxiliaries, in their epistemic and deontic usages, are really quite thoroughly and efficiently dealt with. The examples with their English equivalents are on the mark, and the prose explanations are pleasantly near- conversational.

    There is a UK bias inherent in some entries, e.g. _meant_ with the 'expectation' and 'reputation' readings (_I am meant to go to the meeting. Alicante is meant to be beautiful_.) While these should rightly be invoked, it would have been worth flagging them as UK- specific (and specifically North American usages should likewise also be so noted).

    Morphology: The dictionary seems to grant better coverage to verbs and deverbals. For example, _cover_ (the case cited in the preface) does not mention the nominal form at all, nor does _leave_. And the citation for _course_ has no mention of _course_ in the sense of German _Seminar_.

    Special usages: The entry for _schlecht_ lacks the 'with difficulty'/'hardly' usage (_Das kann ich sehr schlecht sagen_ 'I really can't say.'), and the entry for _hang [up]_ does not include the translation for 'hang up [the telephone]'. The entry for _die_ has no mention of _ums Leben (ge)kommen_, which is so common in written German, particularly in the media. Commendably, the entry for _remember_ includes _denken an_ (i.e., 'remember' in the NOT+forget sense), which is somewhat rare for dictionaries. Some entries point out regional variations (e.g. north German _arg_) and colloquialisms.

    There is no cross-referencing in the book. If one looks up _cheat_, one finds no partial entry; instead, one must know to look up _deceive_ instead, which gives the usages for _deceive, cheat, delude_, etc. However, this problem is circumvented with the word index in the back.

    A final note: After completing this review, I asked an intermediate/ advanced level learner of German to look up some terms he found difficult or curious, thus testing the dictionary's efficacy in an actual target user. The learner selected the following: _popular_, _close_, and _however/but_. On all counts, he was satisfied with the degree of detail and explanation offered, as well as the writing style; he also considered reading a few pages a day for edification.

    Overall, the dictionary is quite useful, and I would recommend it to learners of both English and German, and perhaps also to professional translators as well. I would not say that it replaces the need for a monolingual dictionary, but it does supplement it quite well. The writing style is especially refreshing, its style near-conversational- in contrast with the usual style for reference books.


    Duden. 1972. Zweifelsfaelle der deutschen Sprache. Mannheim.

    Duden. Das grosse Woerterbuch der deutschen Sprache (6 volumes). 1976- 1981. Mannheim.

    Eggeling, H.F. 1961. A dictionary of modern German prose usage. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Farrell, R.B. 1953/1971. Dictionary of German synonyms. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

    The Oxford English Dictionary. 1989. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

    Webster's third new international dictionary. 1961. Springfield MA.


    Charley Rowe is a post-doctoral fellow in English dialectology at the University of Newcastle upon Tyne, UK. Her research interests lie in the fields of casual speech, dialectology (of German and English, in particular) and computer-mediated communication.