On Dictionaries and Grammar Books

The first thing to say about grammar books and dictionaries is that, if you’re studying A276 (or any entry level Latin course) you are unlikely to need any of them. It will take a while for your vocabulary, and your understanding of grammar, to evolve to a point beyond standard textbooks.

However, there are good reasons why you might want a grammar book or dictionary. Here are my five top reasons.

  1. A grammar book will explain things in a different way. Sometimes a different explanation makes a big difference, when you feel like you haven’t quite grasped the explanation in your textbook.
  1. A grammar book sets everything out for you. Textbooks tend to drip-feed information to you, a little at a time, to avoid scaring those new to language learning. If you’re an experienced language learner you may prefer to have all of the tables in full and up front, so that you can learn in your own way.
  1. A grammar book may give you examples: sentences or phrases which you can use as a model. This can be extremely useful, particularly if you’re not great at following instructions and prefer something to copy!
  1. A dictionary gives you lots of information. Textbooks tend to select for you the translation that you’re supposed to give: that’s helpful when you’re trying to give the right answer, but not if you’re trying to learn about the range of meanings of a particular word.
  1. A dictionary may give you examples: places where that word is found with a particular usage. You can then look those up. This is useful if you want to explore the ways in which a particular word or concept was used in the ancient world.


So you’ve decided you want a dictionary, or a grammar book (or both!) – which one do you choose? Here are my personal favourites.


Grammar books


latin grammar

The Oxford Latin Grammar is nice: it’s clearly laid out, has lots of useful examples, and a slightly friendly tone (for a grammar book!). It’s not exhaustive, but it is comfortable.


The Cambridge Latin Grammar is less friendly, with fewer examples: but the pages are bigger, the layout is simpler, and the whole thing is geared towards lists and tables. If you want to photocopy verb tables and stick them on your fridge, this is the book for you!



Kennedy has been around for a very long time. This is a proper, old-school grammar book, full of exceptions and quirky grammar points, and a nightmare to navigate. If you’re new to language learning, this is not the book for you: it will make your head spin! If, on the other hand, you are fascinated by obscure grammatical twists, then this is a treasure trove of interesting stuff.





Oxford Latin Dictionary (frequently referred to as ‘old OLD’): this is the big dictionary. It’s lovely: chock-full of references and examples, and with more obscure words than you can shake an augury stick at. It’s awfully expensive, no matter where you look, and its references to texts are rather outdated: it also doesn’t really dabble in later or Christian Latin. But there’s just something about it!

Lewis and Short: well, if you can’t justify spending hundreds on an OLD (it took me years to stop feeling guilty about that!), then a second-hand Lewis and Short is an excellent second choice. It isn’t as big, as clear or quite as full of references: but it’s more wide-ranging, and it’s a great work.

Pocket Latin Dictionaries: there are a few of these available, and there’s something to be said for them. Yes, they’re pared down, simplified and missing a lot of the more obscure vocabulary: but they’re handy if you just can’t remember a word and need to look it up quickly.



Online reference materials


There is a great deal of useful stuff online, for both vocabulary and grammar.

Perseus has a wonderfully searchable Lewis and Short, starting here: http://www.perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/text?doc=Perseus%3Atext%3A1999.04.0059. It’s very useful for reference: although not in exactly the same way as the print version.

There are lots of online dictionaries: some good, some definitely not good, some free, some (particularly the Oxford ones) charging for access. Finding one that suits you is a process of trial and error.

Similarly, there are a lot of grammar resources online, from old textbooks to YouTube lessons. If you’re studying in the UK, however, it’s wise to avoid the US resources: they use slightly different terminology sometimes, and they structure their learning differently (for instance, in the UK our noun tables are nominative- accusative- genitive- dative- ablative, while in the US the positions of genitive and dative are switched). Mixing UK and US resources can therefore lead to confusion!

Look for old Latin grammar books for download, like Wheelock, Allen and Greenough or Gildersleeve. Since old grammar books are out of copyright, they’re easy to find for free online. You don’t really need a modern grammar book: it won’t have anything different in it!


The single most important thing about a dictionary or a grammar book is how you feel about it. So go to an academic bookshop; flick through books; figure out what you like and what you don’t. A reference book that suits you will make everything easier!