When first starting to write academic papers, students often find themselves surrounded by a sea of words, some familiar and others utterly perplexing. In such moments, the only thing that can help survive through the process of reading and compiling scientific data is a dictionary. Yet, when you use a dictionary to write your work, you then inevitably need to cite it both in text and on your reference list, since becomes integral to understanding your argument or research. Whether you’re dissecting a complex term in a paper or anchoring your thesis on a specific definition, knowing how to properly cite a dictionary is an essential skill for any student.

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When Would You Need to Cite a Dictionary?

In academic writing, a well-defined term is what guides the readers throughout your whole paper. For instance, let’s assume you’re crafting a paper on the intricacies of existentialism. You use the word “absurd” a lot since it is crucial to your argument. That’s your cue to a) give a proper explanation of the term, and b) cite the dictionary you used to define the term in the first place.

Now, imagine you’re dissecting a scientific concept, perhaps in the field of quantum mechanics. If you’re using a specific definition to explain the term “superposition” to your readers, then it’s time to include the dictionary you used in the list of reference entries. And let’s not forget about those moments when you’re painting a picture with words, perhaps in a literature analysis. If you’re digging into the symbolism of “light” in Virginia Woolf’s work, a precise definition can be your paintbrush.

In short, whenever a definition is the linchpin of your argument or the key to unlocking your discussion, it’s time to tip your hat to the dictionary. This ensures that your readers can trace the source of your definition and lends credibility to your work.

How to Cite a Dictionary in APA Style

Citing a dictionary in APA style is a straightforward process, but it’s crucial to get the details right. Here’s the general format:

Author(s). (Publication Year). Title of entry. In Title of dictionary (Edition). Publisher.

For example, if you’re citing an entry from Collins English Dictionary, your citation might look like this:

How to Cite a Dictionary

You may also need to add a specific page where you found the definition. The page number is added AFTER the specified edition of the dictionary.

How to Cite a Dictionary

For the in-text citations, you just need to include an author and publication year in parentheses:
(Collins, 2019). When mentioned in the narrative you can just say “Collins (2019)”.

How to Cite an Online Dictionary

Citing an online dictionary in APA style requires a few additional details, particularly the URL. Here’s the format:

Author(s). (Publication Year). Title of entry. In Title of dictionary. Retrieved Month, Date, Year, from URL

It’s important to note that if the dictionary is continuously updated and doesn’t have a specific publication date, you can use “n.d.” (no date) in place of the year.

How to Cite a Dictionary

How to Cite a Dictionary in MLA

The MLA format for citing a dictionary is slightly different from APA. Here’s the general structure.

How to Cite a Dictionary in MLA

What to Do If You Are Citing a Single Entry

If you’re only referencing a single entry from a dictionary, the citation should focus on that specific word or term

In APA style, this would mean including the title of the entry in the citation, as shown in the examples above. In MLA style, you would start the citation with the title of the entry, followed by the dictionary’s details.


Knowing how to create a dictionary citation is a crucial skill for students navigating the academic landscape. Whether you’re using a print or online dictionary, adhering to the correct citation format—be it APA, Vancouver, or MLA—ensures that your work maintains its integrity and credibility. By providing clear references to the definitions that underpin your arguments, you not only strengthen your writing but also demonstrate a commitment to scholarly rigor and respect for intellectual property. So, the next time you reach for that dictionary, remember that citing it correctly is just as important as understanding the words within.


How do you cite a dictionary entry in APA format?

To cite a dictionary entry in APA format, you’ll need the following information: author(s) (if available), publication year, title of the entry, title of the dictionary, edition (if available), and publisher. The general format is:

Author(s). (Publication Year). Title of entry. In Title of Dictionary (Edition). Publisher.

For example:

Merriam-Webster. (2020). Empirical. In Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary (11th ed.). Merriam-Webster.

What is the MLA citation format for a dictionary?

In MLA format, you’ll cite a dictionary entry like this: “Title of Entry.” Title of Dictionary, edition (if not the first), Publisher, Year.

For instance:

“Empirical.” Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed., Merriam-Webster, 2020.

Can you give an example of citing a dictionary in Chicago style?

In Chicago style, a dictionary citation in a bibliography might look like this:

Merriam-Webster. Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary. 11th ed. Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2020.

And in a footnote:

1. Merriam-Webster, Merriam-Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, 11th ed. (Springfield, MA: Merriam-Webster, 2020), s.v. “empirical.”

Is it necessary to include page numbers when citing a dictionary?

Typically, page numbers are not included when citing a dictionary entry. This is because dictionary entries are often accessed online or in a format where page numbers are not consistent across different editions or versions. Instead, focus on providing the title of the entry and other relevant details as outlined in the citation guidelines for the specific format you’re using.

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