No matter your command of the English language, we all have trouble defining, pronouncing or even remembering certain words, which makes writing tough. Here are some of the best tools to help you out.
We talked about online language tools for nerds a couple years ago, and today we’re revisiting it with newer and better options. This list isn’t exhaustive, but it’s some of our favourite tools we’ve found — and even make use of on a daily basis — to help in our writing.
By far the easiest way to define a word quickly is to look it up in Google, using the
define operator. For example, searching for
define:improbable gives you definitions from around the web for the word “improbable”. In fact, Google doesn’t really care anymore whether or not you use the colon after
define — if it’s easier for you, just type
If you want something a little more detailed, you can hit up Google Dictionary and search for your word there. You’ll get the word’s pronunciation (in phonetic text and audio), synonyms, definitions from different online sources, and even usage examples from articles around the net. You can even add Google Dictionary to your browser’s search engine so you can search it with a quick keyword.
If you’re looking up several words at a time, Ninjawords is a pretty awesome tool, as it doesn’t refresh after each new word lookup, it just adds it to an ever-growing list. If you have the opposite problem and you need to know the name of something you can describe, Visual Dictionary is a great tool from Merriam-Webster that lets you filter out an object by category and picture until it can name the specific item you’re thinking of. If you’re reading a web page and want to define a word fast, previously mentioned Lingro can do it with just a quick bookmarklet.
Lastly, if you need the definition for something that’s a bit newer or more idiomatic, tools like previously mentioned Open Dictionary, previously mentioned IdiomDictionary, and the ever-popular Urban Dictionary are all useful. If you can’t seem to figure out what a specific acronym is (such as the ever popular internet acronyms IIRC, TL;DR, and others), Acronym Finder has a hefty database as well.
Spelling and Grammar
If you’re a Firefox or Chrome user, you can’t go wrong with the incredibly powerful After the Deadline extension for fixing your writing. Not only does it check regular spelling and grammar errors, but you can even customise it to correct seriously biased language, double negatives, passive voice, and other common errors. When one shows up in your writing, After the Deadline will suggest possible replacements and link to an explanation of why you should change it.
If you find there are a few words you misspell often, we’ve featured a few tools that automatically correct those words as you type. Text expander PhraseExpress comes with an English language pack that will correct common misspellings and other issues, while Universal AutoCorrect uses AutoHotkey to fix words on Wikipedia’s commonly misspelled list. Of course, most built-in autocomplete software can help you in a pinch, as well.
Lastly, a neat crowdsourcing grammar tool called Phras.in deserves mention. If you’re having trouble deciding between two similar phrases, Phras.in will let you compare which one is more common, and even contextualise them for you using recent web pages. It isn’t necessarily perfect, but it can be a good determinant of what is more commonly accepted as correct in a given situation.
As we mentioned above, you can now get phonetic and audio pronunciations from Google Dictionary, but if you’re looking for something a bit quicker the previously mentioned Pronounce Firefox extension (and the newer Pronounce It Chrome extension) will work in a jiffy.
Remembering Words You Can’t Put Your Finger On
This section is my favourite if only because this alleviates that awful feeling I get so often where I know a word exists for what I’m trying to convey, and maybe even know what letter or sound it starts with, but can’t seem to remember. We’ve featured a few tools like this before, but probably the best is the multi-talented Wolfram Alpha. You can search, for example, for
words ending with ation, or even
a_____ation if you know what the word starts and ends with. Unfortunately, you still need to know the number of letters in between, so some trial and error might be necessary. You can, of course, type in
words starting with a and ending in ation, and Wolfram Alpha will return some nice results.
If it’s really driving you crazy, Tip of My Tongue is a cool service that will help you find that word you’re looking for with any number of search terms: what the word starts with, ends with, contains, as well as what it means or sounds like. If you can’t figure it out with that… you might just have to pick a different word.
These are just a few of our favourite tools we’ve found over the years, but you’re bound to have your own that we haven’t seen yet, so if we didn’t mention one of your invaluable writing tools, share them with us in the comments.