Back to Section Home

Choosing and Using a Dictionary

TIP Sheet

A good, collegiate-level dictionary can help any college student who is already fluent in English. It will define 140,000 - 200,000 words, provide a pronunciation guide, and offer other useful sections, such as a biography or geography. Many smaller paperback dictionaries that define about 75,000 words are good portable dictionaries to take to class but have short, incomplete definitions for many words a college student is likely to encounter. Another type of dictionary, called an ESL dictionary, is especially made for English as second language students. Its definitions are easy to understand, and it is a good choice for learners of English, but most ESL dictionaries neither define many words nor give lengthy definitions.

Three other types of dictionaries are spelling dictionaries, electronic dictionaries, and unabridged dictionaries. Spelling dictionaries are very small and only show the correct spelling and hyphenation of words; electronic dictionaries vary widely. Read the information about any specific electronic dictionary in order to categorize it. Nonetheless, to date, electronic dictionaries do not have extensive definitions. Unabridged dictionaries include almost every one of the 550,000 words in the English language, giving detailed definitions, examples of how words are used, homonyms and antonyms, pictures, and other sections besides definitions. Most libraries have an unabridged dictionary.

Finally, there are special dictionaries, which list words only pertaining to a particular subject, such as math, music, or street language; there is even a Scrabble-players' dictionary!

Dictionary terms and explanations
Definition is the meaning of a word; pronunciation is its sound when spoken. Words defined in the dictionary are called entry words. Entry words are listed alphabetically from a to z. Two guide words are printed at the top of each page to help you find the word you want. The first guide word is the first word on that page, and the second is the last word on that page. Root words are the basic forms of words with no endings added. Most dictionaries list only the root words. For example, play is a root word, but playing and played are not. Play should be listed in the dictionary, but playing and played probably won't be.

Every good dictionary has explanatory information in the front section of the dictionary telling how that particular dictionary is organized. For example, it tells what abbreviations the book uses, what symbols are used, and how variant forms, such as irregular plurals or past tenses, of words are listed. Read the explanatory information of your dictionary.

Dictionaries are mainly used to find definitions. Many words have more than one definition. You must choose the definition that makes sense for the way the word was used. For instance, in the sentence below, mill is a verb.

The people mill around the fountain.

Your dictionary will probably give two definitions for mill as a verb, namely, "to grind or crush" and "to move in a churning, confusing, or aimless manner." In the example sentence, mill is used to mean "to move in an aimless manner." Furthermore, mill can also be a noun (with two meanings), so you must skip those noun definitions for the above sentence. Some dictionaries list nouns, verbs, and all parts of speech under one entry word while others have a separate entry for each part of speech.

However, not all words can be found in a dictionary. As mentioned above in the section on dictionary terms, variant forms of root words are usually not listed in dictionaries, or, if they are, they are not defined. For example, became is the past tense of become; because it is an irregular form, it will be listed under become. But became might not be listed as a separate entry. If it is, it will probably be listed like this:

became (bē cam) v. p.t. of become

Using the dictionary's abbreviation section, you can find that v. stands for verb and p.t. stands for past tense. Irregular past tenses of verbs will be listed under the infinitive, or root, form. Regular past tenses will not be listed in a dictionary.

Adjectives and adverbs don't have past tenses, but they have comparative and superlative forms. If these forms are regular, they will not be listed in the dictionary. (For more about these two parts of speech, see TIP Sheets "Adjectives" and "Adverbs.") Some adjectives, like bad, have irregular comparative and superlative forms (worse, worst). Most dictionaries will list bad, with worse and worst listed under bad. Worse and worst may or may not have their own entries.

Adverbs are usually formed by adding -ly to an adjective:

(adjective) fortunate + ly = fortunately (adverb)

Other adverbs have a regularized spelling change:

pretty + ly = prettily

Note the y changes to i. Irregular comparative and superlative forms of adverbs are sometimes listed (such as badly, worse, worst), but often they have the some forms as the adjective (bad, worse, worst) and are therefore only listed once, under adjectives. (Consult a grammar book or the TIP sheet "Adverbs" to learn more.)

Another important service the dictionary provides concerns pronunciation. Immediately after the entry word is information, usually in parenthesis, sometimes between slashes (/). For mill, it looks like this


Each symbol can be decoded by using the pronunciation key in your dictionary. Alongside each symbol is a word that exemplifies that symbol's sound. You may have to refer back to this chart while deciphering the pronunciation of a word. Some dictionaries have a pronunciation key at the bottom of every page.

Many words have more than one acceptable pronunciation. Solstice is such a word. The first syllable has three accepted pronunciations, but the second syllable has only one; therefore, the first syllable is repeated, but the second is not:

(´sŏl-stĭs, ´sōl-, ´sôl-)

First, the entire word is phonetically spelled; then the two accepted variations for the first syllable are shown. Notice that hyphens (-) are used to separate syllables. Some dictionaries use bullets, which are raised periods, for this job. Also note that an accent mark ( ´ ) precedes the first syllable. This is because the first syllable is supposed to be spoken louder than the rest of the word. Some words have a primary accent and a secondary accent because two of the syllables receive more stress than the other syllables. Primary accent marks are printed darker than secondary accent marks.

Additionally, sometimes a word's pronunciation is given under one entry but not another: Circassian (sər-kăsh-ən), with no pronunciation under Circassian walnut. Other times, you must deduce the pronunciation from one form of the word when the word you're looking for isn't listed. For instance, the pronunciation for consolidate is listed thus:


but consolidation does not have a pronunciation listed. However, the -tion ending is a regular ending, and there is rule for adding it to a word ending in -ate, so many dictionaries expect the student to know how to pronounce consolidation since the dictionary lists how to pronounce consolidate.

Other Useful Information in a Dictionary
Dictionaries also tell the history (etymology) of an entry word. Usually the information is inside brackets [ ] and includes abbreviations that are defined in the front of the dictionary.

Some dictionaries contain historical documents, lists of geographical locations, lists of colleges and universities, definitions of foreign words and phrases, short biographies, special tables of weights and measures, and rules of punctuation. Some dictionaries have separate sections for some of this information.

The front section of the dictionary may also have essays about English and some rules of English grammar.

A dictionary is replete with definitions, pronunciations, and other useful information. The more you practice using one, the better and faster you'll become at using it. One day, you'll find yourself leafing through a dictionary just for fun!

Butte College | 3536 Butte Campus Drive, Oroville CA 95965 | General Information 530.895.2511

Back to Top