French Dictionaries Reviewed

French Dictionaries

How to Pick the One That Fits Your Needs

© 2009 by Danielle L. Schultz

Is there anything duller than a dictionary? Well, for most of us they're not favorite bedtime reading, but, just like bathrooms, when you need one you REALLY need one.  Sooner or later in your study of French you're going to need more help than the word lists in the back of the book. Will the pocket version for $6.95 be more than adequate, or is the $50.00 unabridged the only way to go? Here's my take on the options available.

                Let's classify French dictionaries into three types: compact or pocket; concise or college; and unabridged. All of these are French/English dictionaries designed for foreign (English) students of French, not French dictionaries for French speakers. Besides my comments on the look and ease of usage, I decided to test check each of these dictionaries on five French words and three English words.  I selected the French words from Arthur Rimbaud's poem, "Ophélie" , since I had recently read it and found some of the words challenging. The words were hallalis (kill); les saules (weeping willow); les nénuphars (water lilies); l'âpre (bitter, harsh); and chevelure (girl's hair). The English words were search engine, selected to see whether contemporary definitions were included, and two common four letter words, one crude, one worse. I chose these because I once had a very embarrassing classroom experience by misusing the verb baiser, and I thought you might want to know whether or not these types of words were included.


                These editions are what most of us buy for our first dictionary for French. While later on in this article I'm going to make some arguments why this is not necessarily the best choice, let's go "smallest first". These dictionaries are usually the size of a mass-market paperback, and often printed on cheap newsprint-like paper. They are easy to stow in a purse or suitcase, and useful for travel. When I first started traveling in France, I carried one around in my hand along with a map, and just put it on the restaurant table at meals. Not the best way to travel incognito, but there were a lot of waiters who laughed at my sheepish struggles. They're easy to flip through, and will usually contain most words that you'll encounter in daily usage.

Their size makes them easy to carry, but also severely limits content: fewer definitions, and those definitions tend to be very brief.  Also, the type size is small and the layout dense, making them a more difficult read for younger students and those of us on the other end who will need our reading glasses every time.  Finally, because they are mass-market, they are not very durable. Pages get yellow and crispy, bindings crack, and covers quickly disintegrate. I've owned 4 or 5 of these over the years, and they generally lose the first 5 pages or so by the time I return from a trip. On the other hand, it won't be a tragedy if you lose them.

Here's my roundup:

Berlitz ISBN 978-981-246-877-2

50,000 entries

720 pages


                Features a durable-looking plastic cover, sturdy binding. The inside covers have a guide to abbreviations and pronunciation, much easier to find than searching through most dictionaries' Roman numeral front matter. The typesetting was nice, with words printed in blue and definitions in black, and there's a verb conjugation table.  All of my test words were there, with the exception of hallilis.

                This dictionary states that it's recommended for beginner/intermediate level.  I think it would be a great one to purchase for travel, as the binding looks to be both durable and waterproof.  It is, however, twice the price of some of the others.

Collins Pocket (5th edition) ISBN 978-0-06-143862-2

35,000 references; 70,000 translations

588 pages + 30 pages of verb tables + 31 pages "French in Focus"


                I like the blue words/black definitions and bright white pages.  The French in Focus section offers brief descriptions of French regions: informal French; conventions in writing letters, emails, faxes, etc.; and common translation difficulties. This was all actually fun to read through, but I'm not sure the student would need to reference it on a continual basis. Still, it's nice to have such information on hand.

                As to the word test, not so good. Missing hallilis, âpre, one of the bad words, and chevelure was buried in italics inside the definition for cheveu.

Merriam-Webster's  ISBN 978-0-87779-917-7

80,000 entries; 100,000 translations

804 pages


                This one includes 17 pages of basic grammar as well as the usual verb conjugation tables. I've found these basic grammar pages to be quite useful in foreign language dictionaries, particularly when writing in the language-after a while, you just don't remember certain points that you use infrequently.

                Unfortunately, it defines baiser as "to kiss" which is exactly what got me in trouble in my class experience. Neither of the dirty words are included in the English section, neither is search engine nor hallilis. Binding is cheesy, type is all black and white, but it's a decent bargain, particularly if you're not sure how much commitment your children might have to long term study of the language.

Larousse Pocket ISBN 978-2-03-542085-5

55,000 words; 80,000 translations

744 pages


                I confess that Larousse was my first love, but it's a love that's had to be replaced often, due to the flimsy cover, rapidly yellowing pages, and tendency to break into pieces.  All my test words are included except for the elusive hallilis.

Oxford New French Dictionary ISBN 978-0425192894

100,000 words, phrases and translations

472 pages


          Newsprint pages in black and white. The 100,000 is a bit misleading, as it's not unique word entries, but includes multiple meanings for the same word.  8 pages of verb conjugations are helpful.  As to my test words, hallilis, âpre, and both the dirty words are missing. No better or worse than the other low priced ones.


Collins French Dictionary ISBN 978-0-06-126047-6

40,000 words; 70,000 translations

424 pages


                I like some Collins dictionaries very much, but this isn't one of them.  It's missing hallilis, âpre, chevelure, and both dirty words. I'd go with the Berlitz or Larousse first.


These are much more complete, easy to use, and generally have better layout and typeface. However, they are desktop jobs, not pocket size.  Either the concise or college versions will carry you and your student through high school and college work.

Collins Concise ISBN 978-0-06-114182-9               

230,000 entries & translations

878 pages + 250 page grammar guide


                Bright white pages, entries in blue and definitions in black make this a clean layout and an easy read. The grammar guide is excellent and has its own index so you can actually find something. My only problem is the binding-I've used this dictionary for less than a year and the pages are already coming loose. If you have gentle students, this is a terrific dictionary. It has all the test words (at last).

Collins Robert French Dictionary College Edition ISBN 978-0061690235

350,000 references

1328 pages


          The edition above is the 7th edition. I have the 6th edition, which has 1280 pages, so there might be some differences-the description on Amazon mentions a new biographical section on famous French people. All my test words are included, and there's a similar center section, French in Action, as is contained in the Collins Pocket, above.  My edition does NOT have the grammar guide of the Collins Concise.  It is printed in the Collins two-color scheme and is very easy to read. However, it is 2.5 inches thick and may be a challenge for younger children to heft.

          This dictionary is a hardback and has sewn pages.  It has survived several falls off the bookshelf, intact. I bought this one for my daughter. As luck would have it, she prefers my cheaper Concise edition (not so heavy and she like the grammar reference.)

Larousse Concise ISBN 978-2-03-5420-48-0

100,000 entries; 130,000 references

1197 pages + 20 pages conjugations + 8 pages of references (numbers, time, currency, etc.)


          All my test words except hallilis were here.  This volume has nice little feature blocks that give background on some of the words.  For example, collège has a little block that explains school grade levels, and also explains the Collège de France. Type is black and white and the book has the usual flimsy Larousse binding.

Harrap's ISBN 978-0071440691

115,000 entries; 170,000 references

1032 pages + 105 page center section of conjugations and grammar references


          It's missing hallilis and search engine. Unlike every other dictionary I reviewed, this one place the English section first, then French. Notably ugly cover. I'd say spend the extra couple of bucks and get the Collins.

Webster's New World Concise ISBN 978-0471748311

115,000 entries; 170,000 references

1088 pages, with 75 pages of conjugations, and a communications guide


          This appears to be a version of Harrap's revised for the "North American" market.  I liked the bright white pages and it was quite easy to read.  The communications guide gives advice on email and letter conventions, etc. It was missing only hallilis.


          The only unabridged dictionary I was able to get my hands on is the one I own, a Larousse unabridged which appears to be out of print.  Generally, bookstores do not carry these honkers, and you will have to special order them or order from an online source. Unabridged versions usually sell for upwards of $50.00, and mine is 4 inches thick. You definitely do not want this falling off a shelf on your foot.  Expect a hardcover and a sewn binding, with at least 300,000 entries and 500,000 translations. Based on what I've seen of other editions, I'd probably choose the Collins Unabridged (ISBN 978-0061338175) if I lost my Larousse.  However, it's been going strong for over 20 years and I think I'll have it buried with me.  That said, it does not include computer terms (since it predates computers-remember those days).

Unless you or your student plans to major in French or write a French textbook series, you probably don't need an unabridged. If you're a dictionary fan, put it on your wish list! Sometimes, it's just satisfying to look at it on the shelf and think of all the possibilities still left to explore.



As with many purchases, the best one for you depends on how you'll use it, the age or level of your students, and how much you are willing to pay.  I'd choose the Berlitz for travel, and either the Collins Concise or College for desk use. And no, my Larousse Unabridged is not for sale!