How to use an English dictionary

Tips for getting the most from an English dictionary.

Invest in a good English dictionary. It’s one of the best things that you can do to improve your English.

Learn the phonetic alphabet. At the beginning of most good English dictionaries, you’ll find the phonetic table, which tells you how to pronounce the phonetic symbols given with each word. If you learn these symbols, you’ll find it much easier to pronounce new words.

Learn how to use the stress marks. Most English dictionaries show where the stress of a word is by using the mark. This means that the following syllable is stressed:

pho- ‘to-gra-pher

The best way to improve your pronunciation is with correct word stress, as making mistakes with stress causes more misunderstandings than mispronouncing the word.

Make sure you know the grammar of the new word. If it is a verb, does it need a preposition, such as ‘in’ or ‘of’? Does the verb have an irregular ending?

Look at the definition of the new word. If you don’t understand it, try a simpler dictionary. Good dictionaries give definitions that are simpler than the word they describe.

Look at the example sentence given. It should show the new word in a way that explains its meaning.

Other things to think about

Is the new word typically spoken or written? Formal or informal? American or British? Which other words can you use it with?

This information will help you to start practising the new word, confident that you are using it in the right situation.

Don’t try to learn every new word – concentrate on the words or phrases you think you will need to know.

If you want to know the most common and useful words in English, check out our own English dictionary!

Many English words have more than one meaning. Some dictionaries put the most common meaning first in the list of definitions.

Pictures of words, or word groups, can help you to remember more easily.

Questions about dictionaries

1. Should I use a normal English dictionary, or a bilingual one?

It’s generally better to use a normal English (monolingual) dictionary. There are three main advantages of these dictionaries.

* They give you practice in understanding English.

* As the definitions and examples are in English, you can see immediately how a word is used.

* Because many English words won’t translate directly into your language, you have to be careful with bilingual dictionaries when you write down the meaning of the word.

2. Why can’t I understand the definitions? Perhaps your dictionary is too complicated. Try using one that’s especially designed for learners of English at your level. It’s annoying if you can’t understand the definition or example sentence of a new word. It’s much better to start off with a simpler dictionary, such as Longman Active Study Dictionary, then move on to a more complex one later.

3. How many words should there be?No dictionary contains all the words and expressions in English (currently estimated to be around 1 million). The average person knows at least 60,000 words, so a useful dictionary will have around 80,000 words and expressions.

4. Why can’t I find the words in my dictionary? English is changing – every year there are new words and expressions. Make sure your dictionary is fairly new, as any dictionary older than a few years may be out-of-date. If you’re looking for a special or technical word, it might be a good idea to invest in a specialised dictionary.