What Is the Difference Between a Dictionary and an Encyclopedia?

A printed dictionary is typically found in one volume that contains tens of thousands of words and brief definitions, whereas a printed set of encyclopedias contains multiple volumes and in-depth explanations of words and concepts. A dictionary is more commonly used to verify the meaning of a word. An encyclopedia is used to gain a deeper understanding of that word.

Encyclopedias contain more general knowledge than dictionaries. A dictionary is very specific regarding the pronunciation, origin and use of a word, while an encyclopedia explains to readers why that word is important. A person who reads a page from an encyclopedia may see a total of one or two entries on that page, while a person reading a page in a dictionary may see dozens of entries.

A dictionary features thousands of words, while an encyclopedia includes fewer total entries, with the focus being on explaining a word. An example of this is found with the word “platypus.” Looking up the word “platypus” in the dictionary yields a few sentences that explain what a platypus is. Looking up the same word in an encyclopedia results in several paragraphs that provide details, such as where the animals live, how they reproduce and what they eat.