What's In A Dictionary?

Aside from looking up an occasional definition, what other types of useful information can you find in the typical household dictionary?

It's true that most of us don't pick up a dictionary for casual or fun reading. But a majority of readers have used one at least once in their lives, usually to look up the meaning of a word. But there is more to a dictionary than the meanings of words. Although you might have learned dictionary usage in grade school, here are a few reminders to help polish your reference skills:

1. Dictionaries provide a word's pronunciation. By separating a word into syllables and stressing the one that receives the most emphasis, a dictionary lets you know, without hearing it, how a word ought to sound when you say it. This help is compounded by the way the word appears to be pronounced with the inclusion of an accent mark on the main syllable and vowel markers for long and short vowels. While various regions may say a word differently, you will be able to get the basic sound of it from the dictionary.

2. Dictionaries explain a word's part of speech. Using abbreviations like "n" for "noun" or "v" for "verb," a dictionary will help you learn the function of a particular word, or even if it has more than one usage like "smile," which can be a noun ("He gave me a SMILE") or a verb ("She tried to SMILE"), depending on how it is used in a sentence. Looking up a few key words can help you brush up on grammar skills as well as vocabulary.

3. Dictionaries outline a word's etymology or derivation, or what we might call its history. More inclusive dictionaries sometimes cite the date of a word's coinage or first usage, the language(s) that spawned it, and the various changes that brought it into modern times. Languages that are cited are abbreviated, with a table of explanations at the beginning of the dictionary. For example, "OE" stands for "Old English."

4. Dictionaries list several meanings for a complex word, usually beginning with the most common and ending with the most obscure. These definitions are composed of simple words and short phrases or sentences for easy understanding by a wide range of readers, often accompanied by an example for clarity. Denotations, or literal meanings, as well as connotations, or suggestive meanings, are typically included.

5. Dictionaries sometimes include additional features for word entries. Antonyms, or contrasting words, may be found at the end of the entry, along with participle forms or unusual usage. Some dictionaries explain how certain words from popular culture have been added, like Homer Simpson's "Doh!" Or they might point out that common usage of an expression like "comprised of" is not particularly accurate, since "comprising" is the better choice of phrase.

Dictionaries also can include numerals from other languages like Hebrew or Russian, proper titles for government or clergy officials, and seasonal or date usage, such the proper use of "a.m." and "p.m." Browse your local bookstore to find a helpful dictionary that can provide a wealth of information when you need it.

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