How To Use a Dictionary

Dictionaries are useful resources, if you know how to use them. If you think they're nothing more than a bunch of non-sense letters and words, then you might benefit from a crash course in using dictionaries. Follow these steps on how to use a dictionary and you'll soon be looking up words, pronunciations and definitions with ease.

Step 1

Determine what you need to look up. Dictionaries are organized alphabetically. To be able to use them, you need to know what letter of the alphabet to start at. Determine what word you need to look at, and take note of the first letter of that word.

Step 2

Open the dictionary to the right letter. Now that you know the first letter of the word you want to look up in the dictionary, turn to that letter in the dictionary. As mentioned, all words in the dictionary are in alphabetical order. So if your word starts with ‘R', then skip past the first part of the alphabet until you reach the section devoted to ‘R' words, which will be found toward the back of the dictionary.

To help you find the ‘R' section of the dictionary, look at the top left and right corners of each page of you flip. You'll notice that there are words written there, called ‘guide words.' These guide words tell you the first (left side) and last (right side) word written on that page. So you'll instantly know if your word comes before or after the page you're looking at by considering whether it comes before, after or within the two guide words listed at the top of the page. (If you're lucky, some dictionaries have edged-out indentations on the side of the book. Place your finger in the ‘hole' of the letter your word starts with, and instantly flip to that section.)

Step 3

Begin to search the section by looking at each consecutive letter in your word. You've used the first letter of the word to help you find the right section of the dictionary you want to use. Now you need to narrow down the area in that section. Do this by looking at the second letter in the word you are looking up. Let's say your word is ‘rug' and you are in the ‘R' section. Good. Now you need to start looking for words that begin with ‘RU', just as rug does. Thinking alphabetically, you can flip past all the ‘RA', ‘RB', ‘RC' words and so on until you reach the ‘RU' words.  Then start looking at the third letter of the word you want to look at. When you reach the ‘RU' area, start looking for ‘RUG'. Continue to flip the pages until you reach the definition for ‘RUG'.

Step 4

Read the definition. When you finally do arrive at the word you want to look up in the dictionary, you'll find a few other bits of information about the word that you can use. First of all, you'll see the word spelled properly along with a syllabic breakdown of the word, splitting the word up into the syllables. To further help you with pronunciation, the dictionary will use symbols to show how to say particular letters in a word. Check the front of your dictionary to see how soft, hard and unique letters are denoted. Some words will have two different pronunciations listed at the beginning of the word entry.

After this, the dictionary will give the definition of the word (again, there may be more than one definition). You'll also find synonyms and antonyms (words that are like the word you looked up, and words that are opposite of the word you looked up). Depending on how detailed the entry is, you may also find a history of the word, its origin, and a phrase or sentence that uses the word properly.

Step 5

Find the best definition for you. Since most words have more than one definition, you'll need to find the best definition. Think about what the word means to you, read it in the sentence you found it in, and use the dictionary to eliminate definitions that don't make sense for the way the word is being used in your case. If the definition helps to explain the word you looked up, then you have successfully learned how to use a dictionary.


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