Finding Topeka: OneLook adds part-of-speech filtering

OneLook is proud to announce the arrival of a much-requested feature: filtering by nouns, adjectives, verbs and other parts of speech.

OneLook is a power tool for finding and learning about English words. For the past 18 years we've served scholars, writers, medical transcriptionists, crossword puzzle enthusiasts, language learners, and marketing professionals around the world.  We started as a “meta-dictionary”, a place to find all the different definitions of a word on dictionaries and glossaries across the Web with just one lookup -- hence the name.   

There were relatively few online dictionaries back in 1996, but these days OneLook indexes more than a thousand of them, including nearly 20 million definitions of more than 9 million unique words and phrases in the English language.   

Wildcard features

Sometimes you don’t know the word you want; or you’re looking for a variation of a word or phrase or letter sequence that you do know; or you know part of the word you’re looking for, but can’t remember the whole. Over the years we've added “wildcard” and “reverse dictionary” features to OneLook to address these needs, including a query syntax that lets you find words quickly from OneLook’s large vocabulary.  

The example searches on the homepage show you how to use the basic wildcard features.   Unique on the Web for their flexibility and speed, these features have become the most frequently used function of OneLook, especially as other sites (like Google) now handle regular “forward” dictionary lookups more comprehensively.

Searching for a few good words

With so many sources indexed by OneLook, a lot of wildcard searches produce too many results to be useful. For example, can you think of some words that begin with the letters “abst”?    I bet “abstain” and “abstract” come to mind, and maybe a couple others. OneLook finds a whopping 494 such words and phrases across all of the dictionaries it indexes. You can see them by doing a search for “abst*”. You’ll find “Abstergo Industries”, a fictional megacorporation in a videogame, as well as “abstravagant”, a neologism meaning “weirdly great” that appears only on UrbanDictionary, and “abstergent”, an old-timey word for cleaning.

No offense to Abstergo Industries, but if you’re on the hunt for just a simple word -- for a product name, crossword puzzle, or wedding toast, say -- then most of these 494 results are not useful.

That's why a long time ago we added filtering by “commonness” to help in these situations.    A yellow box like this one shows up after you do a wildcard search:


If you click on the far right option (“Common words”), the list will be winnowed down to the subset of words that are considered “common”, which means they are found in a lot of different dictionaries on OneLook. There are only 30 such results for “abst*”. (Did you miss “abstruse”?)

New feature:  Filtering by part of speech

Still, 30 is a lot.  What if you know you’re looking for an adjective?  A new feature on OneLook lets you filter words by part of speech.  “Part of speech” refers to the broad syntactic category of a word.   You may know parts of speech by their street names: noun, adjective, verb, and so forth. The new filtering option appears right below the “filter by commonness” option.  It looks like this:


If you click on “adjectives” your results will be further restricted to the subset of words that are known to be adjectives.  In the case of “abst*”, that leaves you with 8 choices, a manageable number to read through.

Suppose you’re looking for a place name that has 6 letters, starts with “t”, and ends in “a”?   This might be the case if, like me, you’re stumped on today’s New York Times crossword puzzle (24 across on the puzzle for January 5, 2014).   Filtering for such words gives you a handful of choices, among them the correct answer (spoiler alert!): “Topeka”.

Tips for effective part-of-speech filtering

  • Instead of clicking in the yellow box, you can access this feature by simply typing “:adjective”, “:noun”, “:verb”, or “:adverb” after your query, e.g. in a search for “abst*:adjective”.

  • For nouns, this feature makes a distinction between common nouns (such as giraffe) and proper names (such as Abraham Lincoln or Topeka), because you’re usually only looking for one or the other.   As a general rule, if you think the word you’re looking for would start with a capital letter if it were printed out in the middle of a sentence, choose “proper names”, otherwise choose “common nouns”.

  • Adverbs are an odd part of speech since they encompass several different kinds of qualifying words, so you may get some surprises.   If you’re a native English speaker, then in grade school you may have learned that adverbs always end in “ly”.  By now you know that’s not true -- that is, assuming you’re not in grade school any longer.     For example, if you scan the adverbs that begin with “a” in this list  you’ll find such terms as  “aboveboard” and “ad hoc,” which are, like “quickly,” valid ways to do things.  And there are 114 common nouns that do end in “ly”!

  • You may know that OneLook offers a reverse dictionary service that allows you to search for words by meaning. In addition to filtering “raw” wildcard searches, you can also filter reverse dictionary search results by part of speech. For example, a typical reverse dictionary search is “a*:love”, which asks for words that start with “a” and have a meaning related to “love”.   If you filter this result for verbs, “adore” will show up first in the results;  if you filter for adjectives, “amorous” will show up first;  and if you filter for nouns, “affection” will show up first.

  • Sometimes a word form can belong to multiple parts of speech; for example, “vacuum” is listed as both a noun and a verb. Can you think of a word that can be a noun, verb, adjective, or adverb? (Well, can you?)

Room for improvement

Purists will note that not every part of speech is available as a filtering option. Pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections -- so-called “closed class” words -- aren’t so interesting because there are relatively few of them, and so they are not included in the filtering interface.

You’ll occasionally find errors in the new part-of-speech filtering feature.  In particular, proper names are not always recognized as such and are sometimes lumped in with common nouns.   Also, the reverse dictionary has some trouble with filtering polysemous words -- that is, words which have multiple senses, like "refuse."  You’ll notice on this page that we’ve asked for verbs related to "garbage" that begin with “ref*”, but, while the noun form of "refuse" is appropriate for this query, the verb form is not.   These glitches will be addressed over time.

Since we introduced wildcard matching a decade ago, OneLook users have requested part-of-speech filtering more than any other new feature.   We hope this change begins to address this need.  Please send us feedback if you have any comments about this feature or any other feature requests.

93 responses
Congrats on the new feature. I love and use OneLook and I'm not even a medical transcriptionist. (But I am a writer.) One of my favorite uses is to scan and compare etymologies from different dictionaries, when I'm not quite sure where a word came from. It's also excellent for coming to a consensus on modernish words like "email" -- should it be written email, Email, e-mail, etc. Thanks, OneLook!
hello onelook community so happy to be among you, I am using Onelook since 2 yeears ago and now I am working on Onelook in French. Thanks for you it is very useful.
Beautiful, beautiful work. I've used OneLook for about 2 years now, and it is still a wonderful experience every time I use it. Honestly, for me, this is part of what makes the Internet worthwhile. So much more is possible, so little is realized. Except here. Thank you, thank you, thank you.
I absolutely love the reverse dictionary look-up. Indispensable tool for a writer. Want to know those pesky parts of a church? Or what all those sails on a three-master are named? Look up church and ship, get the answers. Great help for anyone who writes. Outstanding work GUYS!
Just when I thought I passed, I still learn something new everyday.
I like Two requests: (1) add a filter to eliminate abbreviations and acronyms, and (2) remove the useless, unwanted words from the Urban Slang dictionary ! Your inclusion of it with your other dictionaries is the only thing that irritates me.
a very hand writing tool for poets needing a prod! thank you!
As a professional translator, I have been using OneLook for years. It's one of my most used tools. It had one useful feature that disappeared recently: when a word was not found in the dictionaries it offered Google search with the following string: "word" dictionary OR glossary OR etc., which was very helpful. Is it possible to restore it?
Because I can't very well name my daughter Tigerlily *JEJUNE* Byous! No matter how profound the sound feels now, she'll one day wonder why - once dictionary's found she'll frown and sigh.
"As a professional translator, I have been using OneLook for years. It's one of my most used tools. It had one useful feature that disappeared recently: when a word was not found in the dictionaries it offered Google search with the following string: "word" dictionary OR glossary OR etc., which was very helpful. Is it possible to restore it?" this is right.
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