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3 Top Tips on How to Use English Dictionaries

English dictionaries on a bookshelf

Why should you use a dictionary? What dictionary is more appropriate for your level what are some of the mistakes to avoid when using a dictionary? In this blog post, I’m going to answer these questions and share 3 top tips on how to use of these amazing tools.

When I took English courses in Italy, the UK and New Zealand, I would often ask my teachers questions such as “What does this word mean?” or “Is it correct to say I risk doing something or should I say I risk to do something?” or “What’s the difference between look and watch?”. 

One day, Catherine, one of my English teachers, was getting quite upset because one of my classmates argued that her definition of the adjective mild was wrong. So Catherine opened the dictionary she had on her desk and clarified the meaning of this word by reading out its definition.

I was amazed.

I thought that thick book had the answers to a lot of my language questions and realised that if I had one, I could learn hundreds of things by myself. So I went to a bookstore in London, bought the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary and started using it. 

This not only helped me improve my vocabulary and grammar, but also made me a more independent, passionate and motivated language learner because I never needed to turn to my teacher again to ask some of the questions I’d always asked.

Learning how to use dictionaries is definitely one of the most useful things I’ve ever done to improve my English and one of the things I still do to learn because I use dictionaries on a daily basis to write university assignments, emails, blogs and stories.

If you’d like to start using a dictionary or if you want to know more about how to use it, here are 3 top tips for you:

Tip #1: Choose the right dictionary for your level

There are two main types of dictionaries: monolingual and bilingual. Which one should you use?

Paul Nation, an internationally recognized scholar in the field of linguistics and teaching methodology, suggests that if you’re a lower-level learner, you should use a bilingual dictionary (Italian to English,  Polish to English, etc.) because in order to understand the definitions in a monolingual dictionary (English to English) you’d need a vocabulary size of 2000 – 3000 words.

I completely agree with this. But, how do you know how many words you know? At the bottom of this article, you’ll find a reliable vocabulary size test that you can take to run an approximate check.

If you’re a more advanced learner, however, you can use a monolingual dictionary without too much difficulty. When I bought the Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary, I was already a strong intermediate student, so I could understand the words in the definitions fairly easily.  There are some excellent free dictionaries online (you’ll see a list at the bottom of this post), so take some time to explore them and choose the one that you like the most.

Tip #2: Learn everything about your dictionary 

Once you’ve decided what dictionary you prefer, start learning everything about how it’s organised and what information you can find in it. Although I would have liked some dictionary training, none of my teachers ever taught me dictionary skills. I simply learned by myself. 

You don’t need to have a special talent but you do need to spend time using and exploring it.

There’s a lot of information in a dictionary. You’ll find definitions, examples, pronunciation of words, collocations (words that are often used together), grammatical information (e.g. countable/uncountable), verb patterns (e.g. I learn to do something NOT I learn doing something) and a lot of other things.

It might be overwhelming, but the good news is that you don’t have to learn everything today. Just like any other skill, you’ll get better by practising, so the more you use a dictionary, the more efficient you’ll become at finding information. 

Just start and start small.

It’s very easy. Every time you want to find out more about a word, open a dictionary and explore. You’ll be surprised by how many things you’ll learn. And the more you learn, the more motivated you become and the more you want to learn. This is what happened to me. It’ll feel good!

Tip #3: Avoid these two common mistakes

Two mistakes that I made and have seen students make when using dictionaries are misidentifying the meaning of a word and trusting online translators.

Misidentifying the meaning of a word

Many words have more than one meaning. This is true in a lot of languages, not just in English, so when you’re searching for the meaning of a word, don’t assume that the first meaning you find in the dictionary is the only possible one. I’ll give you an example. Let’s say you don’t know the word dog. You’re reading a text and come across this sentence:

His last song was an absolute dog.

You go to the Oxford dictionary and see this:

And you might think, how can a song be an animal? Is there something wrong here? Yes, there is. As we said before, exploration is key, so if you explore a little further, you’ll find that the fourth meaning of the word dog is:

 Things make sense now, don’t they? So don’t assume that the first meaning you see is the correct one. Explore.

Trusting translators

When you want to translate a word from your first language into English, you’ll probably use an online translator (Google Translate, Deepl, WordReference, Reverso Context, Linguee, etc.). Translators are useful but, as I always advise my student, don’t trust them and here’s is why.

Let’s say you’re Italian, you’re writing a story and you want to use the Italian verb evitare (to avoid) but you don’t know the equivalent word in English. You type evitare in an online translator but, because this word is polysemous (it has multiple meanings), you get several possible English words that can express this idea. 

Some translators, such as Reverso Context, which, by the way, I highly recommend, give you translated words in context, so you’ll see the translation of the full sentence in which the word evitare is found. 

Look how many possible equivalent words Reverso Context shows.

Avoid, prevent, keep, avert, skip, evade and many more. Now, because you have the context, you can make a more informed decision on the most appropriate English word you could use in your story. But, as I said, don’t trust translators. Choose the word that feels right to you but always check in a dictionary if this is really the one you need. 

By doing this, you’ll find that maybe the word you chose doesn’t express the exact meaning you were looking for or maybe it’s too formal or it’s got a negative connotation. Using a translator is only the first step to learn new words. Always double-check in your dictionary.

Does all this make sense to you? I hope it does and I hope you’ll decide to become more independent by using dictionaries. As promised, here is are the links I mentioned before. Explore, learn and have fun!

Vocabulary size test:  

Some excellent online monolingual dictionaries you can start using today: 

References: Webb, S., & Nation, P. (2017). How vocabulary is learned. Oxford University Press.

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