Dictionary Use

There are several different types of dictionaries. 

  • Bilingual Dictionary
  • Monolingual Dictionary
  • Etymological Dictionary
  • Crossword Dictionary
  • Rhyming Dictionary
  • Mini-Dictionary
  • Pocket Dictionary
  • Thesaurus

The focus of this Dictionary Use Web page is the monolingual dictionary.  A monolingual dictionary uses the same language for the entries and their definitions. Dictionaries are familiar reference books.  You most often use a dictionary to learn the meaning of a word or check its spelling.  A dictionary offers much more, however, and is often under used by college students and English language learners.  In addition to defining words, dictionaries also provide the pronunciation, part of speech, spelling variations, most common to least common meaning usage for each entry, appropriateness of usage, the etymology of the word and in some cases, synonyms and/or antonyms.  And that's just for the word you are looking up.  Good, quality dictionaries can also contain international and state capitals, conversions of weights and measures, examples of other alphabets, explanations of foreign phrases, diagrams of language families, an explanation of English grammar and the list goes on.

There are different quality levels of dictionaries; we'll cover the basics.  Pocket dictionaries are...cute.  Leave them on the shelves, or better yet, in your pocket.  Very simply, they are too limited for serious English language or college student usage.  Paperback dictionaries are also limited, but they contain more words that pocket dictionaries and more information in the entries.  Their best feature is their convenience; they fit comfortably in a backpack.  Most paperback dictionaries with 50,000 or more entries are acceptable.  Now let's look at serious dictionaries.

Desk dictionaries

Abridged dictionaries, often called desk dictionaries, list 150,000 to 250,000 words and concentrate largely on fairly common words and meanings. A good desk dictionary will serve most reference needs for writing or reading. The following lists dependable abridged dictionaries:

  • The American Heritage Dictionary
  • The Random House Webster's College Dictionary
  • Mirriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary
  • Concise Oxford English Dictionary

Unabridged dictionaries

Unabridged dictionaries are the most scholarly and comprehensive of all dictionaries, sometimes consisting of many volumes. They emphasize the history of words and the variety of their uses. An unabridged dictionary is useful when studying a word in depth, reading or writing about the literature of another century, or looking for a quotation containing a particular word.

The following unabridged dictionaries are available at most good libraries.

  • The Oxford English Dictionary, (20 volumes)
  • The Random House Dictionary of the English Language
  • Webster's Third New International Dictionary of the English Language

As a student, these are the fundamentals which you'll need to be familiar with for my classes.

Style labels - these restrict words to a specific usage.

Subject labels - these tell that a word or one of its meanings has a special use in a field of knowledge or profession. For example, trivial means of small value or importance, but under the subject label (Math), it means giving rise to no difficulty.  Other words with subject labels include stridor, stringer and gig.

Region labels - indicate that a particular spelling, pronunciation, or meaning of a word is not national but limited to some area. This may also be indicated by the label dialect or (dial).  A good example is the word critter.

Time labels - indicate words or their meaning that the language, in evolving, has discarded. These words and meanings are included in the dictionary primarily to help readers of older texts. The label obsolete designates words or meanings that are no longer used, for example, crookback, and stone; the label archaic designates words or meanings that are out of date but used occasionally, such as guile.

Dictionary Entry

A dictionary entry contains a lot of information.  The sample below, for the word manipulate, is color coded to identify the key elements within the entry, in addition to the definition.  You may open the link on pronunciation to reveal a general pronunciation key code.  Read your own desk dictionary to see how the entries are organized.  While you're looking through your dictionary, practice the extra credit page.  If you cannot read the entire sample below, try using Microsoft Explorer as your browser.  

       ma•ni•pu•late (mc  n0   p(y) ÇÇ   l~t) v.t.  manipulates,  entry (syllabication)
part of speech
part of speech forms
definition of the entry
label (subject)

manipulating, manipulated to handle or manage or use (a thing) skillfully; to arrange or influence cleverly or craftily; (Surg.) manually examine and treat part of the body for fracture. —tion, —tor, n. —tive, —tory, adj. [F manipulation < Mod. L manipulatio < L manipulare (manus hand)]


Dictionaries, in addition to the etymology (the origin of a word) may state that the entry is an acronym, blend or onomatopoeia.  You may visit the links for further discussion on these specific aspects of some words.  In the meantime, whenever you look up a word, read the entire entry.  You will learn more than just the meaning or spelling you were searching for.