How to Use a Dictionary: 12 Steps (with Pictures)

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How to Use a Dictionary: 12 Steps (with Pictures)
How to Use a Dictionary: 12 Steps (with Pictures)

Of the almost 300,000 words that exist in the Spanish language, the average Spanish speaker knows approximately 300 of them. In addition to being a great help to know how words are written and what they mean, being able to use a dictionary effectively and periodically will be excellent for improving your level of Spanish thanks to the range of useful data it provides on the daily use of the language and grammar.


Part 1 of 3: Understand the Dictionary

Use a Dictionary Step 1
Use a Dictionary Step 1

Step 1. Choose the correct dictionary

We recommend updating your dictionary from time to time so that you have access to the new words that are added each year.

  • Consider buying specialized dictionaries if you think they will be useful for your studies or career. Some of them are the dictionaries of languages, technical, rhymes, for crosswords, for certain subjects (mathematics, chemistry, biology, horticulture, etc.), illustrated dictionaries (excellent for learning another language or to have technical knowledge), language colloquial, idioms, etc.
  • Keep in mind that many countries have their own dictionaries that could be very useful than any common dictionary. In the English-speaking world some of these are: Macquarie dictionary in Australia, Oxford dictionary in England, Webster dictionary in the United States, etc.
  • In some schools, universities and workplaces it is preferred to use a particular type of dictionary in order to maintain a consistent style and have a better understanding among users; be sure to use the correct dictionary for your papers, editions, and reports.
Use a Dictionary Step 2
Use a Dictionary Step 2

Step 2. Read the introduction

The best way to learn how to use a certain dictionary effectively is to read the introduction section where you will find an explanation of the organization of the entries. This section will explain important information such as abbreviations and pronunciation symbols that will be used in all entries.

  • Dictionary introductions explain the organization of the entries (they usually provide the word and its variations, what part of the speech it belongs to, its pronunciation, definition, etc.). As you read the introduction, you will begin to understand how to find the words and how to use the information you find.
  • It could also give you information on the pronunciation of words written in a similar way, which could be helpful if you've only heard one word but don't know exactly how to spell it. For example, if you hear "learn," you might also see "apprehend," but since the "h" is silent, this list will help you with its suggestions.
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27308 3

Step 3. Learn the abbreviations

Dictionaries generally have abbreviations in the definitions of a word, which can be very confusing if you don't know what those abbreviations mean. Dictionaries have a list of abbreviations near the cover of the book, either in the introduction or after it.

  • For example "adj." means "adjective" and it will tell you the type of word you are looking for. "Adv." and "advb." they mean "adverb" and "adverbially", respectively.
  • The abbreviation "n." it could have at least two different meanings: the most obvious and common is "neutral", although it could also mean "north" depending on the context. So be sure to check the context of the word you are looking for.
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27308 4

Step 4. Learn the pronunciation guide

If you immediately jump into reading an English dictionary without understanding the pronunciation guide, it could be difficult to understand. Having an idea of the pronunciation symbols will make it much easier for you.

  • The pronunciation of a word will be between two backslashes ( ) and will usually be in italics.
  • You'll see a single accent mark (') before the strongest syllable in a word. You will see two marks for a middle or secondary accent ("), but the third accent level has no mark. For example, the word“penmanship”(calligraphy) will look like this: \ 'pen-m & n-" ship \.
  • The \ & \ symbol indicates the presence of an unpronounced vowel. This symbol is usually found between an accented vowel followed by \ r \ or \ l \. For example, “sour” will look like \ 'sau (- &) r \.
  • The symbol \ ä \ symbolizes the type of “a” sound that appears in words like “caught” or “fought”. Unlike the symbol \ a \ that describes the sound of the “a” in words like “map” (map), “mat” (mat) and “snap” (to split), among others. In English, vowels are not always pronounced the same way, unlike in Spanish.

Part 2 of 3: Find a word

Use a Dictionary Step 3
Use a Dictionary Step 3

Step 1. Find the section of the dictionary with the first letter of the word

The dictionaries are arranged in alphabetical order, for example, "given" starts with "d", so it will be between the section "c" and the "e".

  • Don't forget the way certain complicated words are spelled, such as "gnome" which starts with "g", "psychology" which starts with "p", "spindle" which starts with "h" and so on.
  • If you are not entirely sure what the first letter is, start with the letter it is pronounced with. If you can't find the word in some section, try others. For example, if you didn't know that "psychology" starts with "p", you could start looking in the "s" section. If you can't find it, you could see the "p" section next to it because it could be related to "psychic" or "psychosis".
  • Also remember that the pronunciation of certain words is very similar, but they are written differently. For example, "hug" and "hug" are written differently and mean very different things. So be very careful and look for the correct word.
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27308 6

Step 2. Read the guide words

These are the ones at the top of the page and they tell you the type of words you will see on it. These will help you find the word you are looking for in the correct section.

  • For example, if you are looking for the word “bravo”, you could start in section “b”. You will have to look at the top of the pages you turn until you get to the page whose guide words are “Brazil-heather”. This way you will know that the words between "Brazil" and "heather" are found on that page. Since “bravo” starts with “b-r-a”, it will be in that section.
  • As always, the dictionary is in alphabetical order, so bravo (b-r-a) will appear before “heather” (b-r-e).
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27308 7

Step 3. Look down to find the word

If, for example, you search for the word "futile", you would have to go through "fury", "merge" and "whip". Since that word starts with "f-u-t", go through the entire section of the words "f-u-r" and "f-u-s" alphabetically until you get to the "f-u-t" area of the page. In this example, go directly to "soccer" and "futon", there you will find "futile".

Use a Dictionary Step 4
Use a Dictionary Step 4

Step 4. Read the definition

When you have located the word, you will see its exact meaning (if it has more than one definition, the first one will be the most common), its pronunciation, if it is capitalized (if it is a proper noun) or to which part of the speech it belongs, among other data.

  • Many are intimidated by the definitions themselves, because they have words to search for. Do not be discouraged, see if you can infer the meaning with the example sentences that the dictionary provides, if you cannot, look for the words that you do not know.
  • Dictionaries sometimes also provide synonyms (words that have the same meaning as the word you are looking for) and antonyms (words that have the opposite meaning of the word you are looking for). So, if your word is "futile", its synonyms could be "trivial", "useless" and its antonyms could be "effective" or "useful". You can also find nearby words, such as "futility."
  • You could also see the etymology, origin or history of the words. Even if you don't know Latin or Classical Greek, this information may help you remember or understand the word.
  • Dictionaries also specify spelling in other varieties of the language. For example in English, you will see the American, British, Australian variants, etc.
Use a Dictionary Step 7
Use a Dictionary Step 7

Step 5. You could also use an online dictionary

These are easy to use. Pick a good and free one, but you could also subscribe to one if your workplace subscribes to one. Write the word you want to search for. The search engine will return the word to you and the definition section will contain most of the items mentioned above.

  • Take advantage of the audios provided by online dictionaries. This resource will help you significantly when you don't know how to pronounce the word.
  • To Google definitions, type: "define: futile." This search engine will only look for the definitions.
  • Keep in mind that the free services might not be as comprehensive as a subscription or a printed dictionary, so keep that in mind if you don't know if you've found the correct answer.

Part 3 of 3: Use the Dictionary Even More

Use a Dictionary Step 6
Use a Dictionary Step 6

Step 1. Use the dictionary to find standard letter patterns

Generally, printed dictionaries (not Internet ones) have standard letters for employment, for SRC, for filing complaints, and various official writings.

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27308 11

Step 2. Research various facts

Dictionaries often have more than just words and their definitions. Some have a lot of information about the world, often in various lists. It could be geographic information (such as maps, countries, cities, capitals, etc.).

  • Printed dictionaries often have different weight, volume, and conversion tables, which may help if you need to convert pounds to kilograms or vice versa.
  • You can also find statistics on the population in various cities and countries, as well as lists of flags, states, provinces and regions around the world.
  • Many dictionaries also have lists of famous or historical people that you can read.
Use a Dictionary Step 8
Use a Dictionary Step 8

Step 3. Have fun

A simple dictionary lookup could enlighten you on new words from time to time. Open the dictionary on any page and read the words that are unfamiliar or interesting to you. Spot them, read the definition, and try to adopt that new word in your mind or when you speak for the next few days until it becomes a natural part of your vocabulary.

  • Play the dictionary game with your friends. This game consists of gathering a group of friends and a dictionary. The first player looks up a difficult word and uses it in a sentence. The other has to guess if the use of the word is correct or if it was an invention of the first. If you guess correctly, it will be your turn.
  • Another dictionary game: each player will have to choose a word that is familiar to the other players, then they will have to read the definition aloud. The others will have to compete to guess that word as soon as possible, they may even have to shout while you read it aloud.
  • Play Balderdash with a dictionary of another language. Pick any unfamiliar word and then have the others invent its definition and have them guess the "true" one.


  • Don't be afraid to study the etymology of a word. Since much of our language comes from Greek and Latin, many times you will see that you will learn their root words, but later you will see that it will be easier for you to understand the new words simply by seeing the structure of the word.
  • If you can't find a word, make sure you know how to spell it. For example, you won't find the word "isotope" if you look in the section for the letter "h", although you may be tempted to look it up there because you're unsure.
  • While it is easy to look up words with an online dictionary, the free ones will not always provide you with enough information, we recommend having the support of a printed dictionary in your library to use it when you need it.
  • If you don't know how to spell a word correctly, use a word processor's spell checker to see the suggestions.
  • Remember to cite a dictionary properly if you use it to write an essay.


  • Dictionaries vary in content and some are very specific. Look at the title to see what kind of dictionary you have. If you have a dictionary of rhymes, colloquial language, idioms, synonyms, another language, or a specialty such as carpentry terms, look for a more general dictionary.
  • Printed dictionaries can become outdated because the language changes over time, so we recommend checking the publication date of yours. Another way to calculate the validity of the dictionary is to look up relatively new words like “chat” or “metrosexual”.

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