We got to talking yesterday about dictionaries, and I speculated that most of my writing students never look into a hardcover dictionary. If they can't get it through spell check or an online dictionary, I guessed, they look at most in a portable paperback. An unabridged Webster's Third sits on its own table in the writing lab, but I can't recall having ever seen a student peek into it.
Of course, it's the first place I look when I'm even mildly uncertain about a word. It isn't just that I consider it authoritative but that nearly every journey produces a happy accident or two. Just the other day, I ran across "knapsack problem" and "floccinaucinihilipilification" (a word, the dictionary informs us, used primarily as an example of one of the longest words in the language).
The web has its happy accidents, too, and maybe the students aren't missing much. But when I get papers, as I have recently, that use "threw out" for "throughout" or "per trade" for "portrayed," then I think that a few hours poring over the unabridged might not be a bad investment.
UPDATE: In the comments below, Larry Kralj mentions a letter to the Oupost that appeared in the Aug. 14, 2003, issue. Those interested can find it here.