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Using a Dictionary





A dictionary gives more than the meaning of a word. When we look up a word in the dictionary, we may also find information about pronunciation, the part of speech, and different forms of the word. We may also find a sentence to help us to understand the word.


The dictionary is an important tool for you to help building a person’s reading skills. Here is what we can find in most dictionaries:

Ø      The different meanings of word

Ø      How to spell a word

Ø      Whether or not a word is capitalized

Ø      How to break down a word into syllables

Ø      How to pronounce a word

Ø      How a word fits into the English system of grammar (what part of speech it is, verb, noun, adjective and so forth)

Ø      How to spell a special plural or verb form of a word, or how to abbreviate a word.

Ø      A sentence or expression that uses a word correctly.

Ø      The meaning of important prefixes and suffixes

Ø      The special usage of a word

Ø      A word that means the same as a word that you look up (synonym)

Ø      A word that means the opposite of a word that you look up (antonym)

Ø      The origin of a word

Ø      Different meanings from the same root word.


There are many basic layout and terminologies in dictionary that we need to know. I have taken a page from a book to introduce the basic layout and terminology of dictionary.




                                                         (taken from: Dictionaries, Oxford University Press, 1998)

A) The Guide Words

All the words in the dictionary are arranged in alphabetical order. Two words appear on top of each dictionary page. These guide words tell you what words to expect on that page. The left-had guide word tells you the first word on that page; the right-hand guide word tells you the last word on that page. If you wanted to look up trench, for example, the left-hand guide word treason is a hint that your word is here, since trench comes after treason. The right-hand guide word is triathlon; since tremch comes before triathlon, you know your word must appear between these two guide words.


B) The Main Entry

The word itself first appears in heavy black letters. (This kind of type is called bold type.) In the main entry, periods show where to put a hyphen in case you have to break the word at the end of a line of writing. The main entry gives the correct spelling.


C) The Pronunciation Key

These groups of letters (coming right after the main entry) tell you how to say the word.

            Letters stand for special sounds. In order to know what sound a letter makes, check the pronunciation key in a dictionary.

            You also learn from the account marks that go with the pronouncing letters just which syllable to stress when you say the word. In               , the heavy mark  after the first syllable tells you that that syllable gets the most stress when you say the word.


D) The Parts of Speech

This tells you the word works in the system of English grammar. The n. after the pronouncing letters of ax means “noun”. Adj. after the word, axial means “adjective”. Sometimes a word has different meanings based on what part of speech it is. Awake as a verb means “to rouse from sleep; wake up.” As an adjective the word awake means “not sleep”.


E) Special Forms and Special Spellings

The word axiomatic is made from the word axiom. Therefore, axiomatic is included as part of the entry for axiom instead of as a main entry itself. Because not everyone knows that the plural of aviary is aviaries, a dictionary will show that word too. Only specially formed plurals appear.


F) The Meaning of the Word

Meanings of words are numbered in bold print. This is because words often have more than one meaning, many meanings can appear. If you see syn., this indicates that the words have similar meaning with the main word. Sometimes you’ll find antonyms (words opposite in the meaning) for the word. The abbreviation, ant. will tell you which words are antonyms. An example sometimes appears to show how the word is used.


G) The Origin of the Word

The information that appears in brackets tells the way that a word has developed in our language. Many words have origins in foreign language like Latin (L) or Greek (G).








Vocabulary Log

It is good for us to have our own vocabulary log. We can also use our dictionary to learn important information about English words. Use a dictionary to look up the new words. In the Vocabulary Log section, write:


  1. The new word. Copy it carefully to learn its spelling.
  2. The part of speech of the word (noun, verb, adjective, adverb). Sometimes, a word might have more than one part of speech. For example, “scar” is both a verb and a noun. You can tell which part of speech a word might be by its place in a sentence or by the words that go with it. For example, if we see “the scar”, we know “scar” is a noun, because only nouns go with the article “the”.
  3. The other forms of the word, and identify them. For example, “scar” has the forms “scarred” (adjective or past tense verb) and “scarring” (noun, verb or adjective).
  4. The definition of the word. Don’t just copy the definition from the dictionary. Try to use our own words. This will help us to understand the definition better.
  5. The sentence in which the word is found in the reading. This will help you to understand the word better, because you see how it is used.
  6. A sentence of our own using the new word. When we practiced using the word, we will remember it better.


(Taken from Tapestry: Reading 1, 200




Some dictionary Pointers

Ø      Review your skill with alphabetical order. Can you arrange words correctly?

Ø      Use the guide words. They save your time.

Ø      Check all abbreviations and symbols in the special section.

Ø      If you look up a word and it’s not where you expect it to be, don’t think it’s not in your dictionary! Check under several possible spellings. If you couldn’t spell the word crime, for example, the sound of the word might suggest these spellings:

Cryme             krime

Kryme             khryme

Crime              chryme

If you couldn’t spell the word, you might have to check them all before you found crime!

Ø      Test the meaning that you find for the word in the sentence in which the word appears. You may not have picked a definition that works for the word as you want to use it.

Ø      Try to say the word aloud after you look at the pronunciation key.





1. Order of the Alphabet

Put the words in this list in correct alphabetical order. Rewrite them on the blank lines.


2. Guide words

If the guide words on top of a dictionary page are single and skeleton, circle the words you would expect to find on that page.


3. Guide word

Under each numbered pair of guide words appear several other words. circle each word that you would expect to find on a page that shows the guide words.

a.Discomfit/ discredit

   discourage                discrete            discover

   disclose                    discount

b. shirring/ shoot

   shook                        shirt                 shop

   shofar                       ship                 



4. One word, several meanings

Each word that follows has several different meanings. Look up each word in a dictionary and write at least two different definitions. After each definition, write a sentence that uses the word correctly. Use your own paper.


5. Pronouncing Words

Use your dictionary to check the correct way to pronounce these words.



6. Practice in Dictionary Skills

Using the sample from a dictionary on page 53, answer the following questions.

a.       what is the plural of aviary?

b.      What is the origin of the word avouch?

c.       Which three words or abbreviations are written with a capital letter?

d.      Circle the words whose a sound is the same as the a sound in pat: avid, avoid, axiom, avocado, avow

e.       What is an aviary?

f.       What part of the world does the dialect Avestan come from?

g.      Where would you find more information about using the word awaken correctly?

h.      Write the plural of avocado?

i.        What do you think aviarist means? It appears under the word aviary. However, aviarist is not defined. Why not?

j.        The symbol    is a schwa. A schwa stands for a vowel sound in a syllable that is not accented. Find three words in which schiwas are used to show pronunciation.



7. A Dictionary Review

using a good dictionary, find the answers to these questions.


  1. What is the plural of ox?
  2. What parts of speech may the word dress be?
  3. What language does the word croissant come from?
  4. What do the following words mean?






  1. write a synonym (a word that has the same meaning) and an antonym (a word opposite in meaning) for each of the following: