What a Good Dictionary Does and How to Master it


This type of reading exercise demands attention, care, concentration, and patience. This is because there are many sides to it and it involves many processes.

It should be mentioned at the beginning that for a person to do well in language study, such a person should always keep a good dictionary close to his/her study. This is because there may be a need to consult the dictionary from time to time.

Keeping a good dictionary is not enough. The reader must be able to understand how to use a dictionary properly.

For instance, the reader must know the various uses of a good dictionary and the various annotations and abbreviations. Below are listed at least ten uses of a good dictionary.

Teaching letters of the alphabet and sounds


A good dictionary teaches letters of the alphabet and sounds.  In writing, words consist of letters of the alphabet and they have a fixed shape making it easy to identify them.

However, in speech, vowels and consonant sounds are sometimes very difficult to identify. This problem is more pronounced when one is listening to a speech, not in one’s native language.

For instance, many English consonants and vowels do not exist in most Nigerian languages.

Checking spellings

A dictionary is useful for checking of spelling of words (spelling is one of the commonest errors for L2 users of English).

For example, some spellings may be confused in terms of using them. The dictionary is the best learning resource to get the right spellings. Consider the following examples:

posible                                     possible

accomodation                          accommodation

achievment                             achievement

cemetry                                   cemetery

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continous/continouos              continuous

occassion                                 occasion

priviledge/previledge              privilege

manouvre                                manoeuvre

occurence                                occurrence

arguement                               argument

Teaching new words

A dictionary teaches the meanings of a new word. For a particular word, there may be about four meanings.

The reader should be able to identify which one fits into the context in which the word he/she is checking is used.

The words may be synonyms, antonyms, homonyms, homonyms, etc. Consider the following examples:

Inevitable        –           Unavoidable

Perplexed        –           Confused/Upset/Troubled

Emulate           –           Imitate/Copy

Obdurate         –           Obstinate/Impenitent/Stubborn

Arrest              –           Catch/Apprehend

Confirm           –           Corroborate

Earmark           –           Approve/Set aside

Teaching usage

A good dictionary also teaches usage. This is an important function of a good dictionary. It does not only teach meaning and spelling, it gives examples of how that word is used.

This is important because the wise reader will be able to form his/her sentences based on the examples supplied by the lexicographer (the dictionary writer). Consider the following examples:

  • Go and post this letter in a post office. (to send a letter)
  • I applied for the post of teacher. (a position)
  • Look at this sedimentary rock (hard solid materials)
  • Beatrice was rocked when a thief was shot dead. (shocked
  • At about 8.00 pm, a thief is rocking right away to my room. (moving gently forward)
  • Chief Waleola has a flock of sheep (a group of sheep)
  • The congregation was flocked to the church to worship (gathered in large numbers)
  • A man is waiting for you here. (male person)
  • I will make sure to man everything I have judiciously. (to take charge or to control)
  • Milk is got from cows (the white liquid produced by cows)
  • A certain amount of money was milked by some governors of the state (obtained so much money for themselves in a dishonest way).

Teaching pronunciations

A good dictionary teaches pronunciation. This is an important aspect of usage because usage includes speech and writing.

Short Vowel /i/

  • Letters ‘a’ as sound /I/ in the village, manage, cottage, etc.
  • Letter ‘e’ as sound /I/ in wanted, decided, ticket, etc.
  • Letter ‘u’ as sound /I/ in busy, build, etc.
  • Letter ‘y’ as sound /I/ in the city, twenty, thirty, etc.
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Long Vowel /I :/

  • Letter ‘ea’ as sound /I :/ in beat, sea, tea
  • Letter ‘ee’ as sound /I :/ in sweet, bee, see, etc.
  • Letter ‘i’ as sound /I :/ in police, machine

Teaching status of words

It teaches speech status of words whether formal/informal, derogatory old use, Latin, French, American, English or British English or Foreign, legal technical, etc.

This is an important part of usage when a reader checks up a good dictionary; he/she will have adequate information about status so that errors or misapplication are avoided.

Teaching tenses and parts of speech

A good dictionary teaches tenses and parts of speech. These two are still parts of usage in that the user must use the correct verb tense and observe the rule or appropriate arrangement in the formation of acceptable sentences.

For instance, in front of the word beat, a dictionary will indicate (vt) i. e. transitive verb. Consider more examples:

  • The man had slept
  • The teacher flogged the students.
  • Bola was singing
  • She speaks English fluently.
  • It is being done.

Indicating certain symbols

Intransitive verbs as for parts of speech, a good dictionary indicates each with certain symbols. For instance, the adjective is represented by the abbreviation (adj.), noun by, (N) and adverb by (adv.).

Furthermore, on tenses, a good dictionary gives other tense forms of a verb, e.g. for past tense you have the notation (p.t.) for past perfect you have (p.p), etc.

Teaching the meanings of connotative expressions

A good dictionary teaches the meanings and usage of expressions such as idiomatic expressions, proverbial expressions, figurative expressions, phrasal verbs, etc.

This is important so that the reader may check the meaning of what he has read and use it on his or her own. It also teaches common abbreviations and their meanings. Consider the following examples:

  • I tried to makcleanlear breast of the matter to the boss but he didn’t listen.
  • The General Manager makes them work like a bat out of hell.
  • Please, don’t let the cat out of the bag.
  • From the bottom of my heart, I love you.
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Teaching the usage of grammar and words and expressions

A good dictionary teaches in what form a word may be used, maybe with prepositions or no, or maybe in passive voice only or both passive and active voice. Consider the following examples:

  • Active: Alani can kill the snake.
  • Passive: The snake can be killed by
  • Joseph walks fast along the street.
  • Those students are walking towards the school gate.

 Solutions for mastery of a dictionary

Keeping a good dictionary beside the reader’s desk, the reader must be able to engage in critical reading.

In this manner, he/she can shift substances from extraneous materials and take note of new materials and structural patterns that occur.

The reader who reads purposely to develop vocabulary must be able to engage in skimming and scanning as preliminary reading exercises not only to extract main ideas but also to identify new words and new advanced constructions.

This will help the reader to associate old experiences with the new and apply newly acquired information to new areas of communication and language use.

The reader who wishes to develop his vocabulary needs to engage in extensive reading and keep an inventory of a book meant for recording new words, their meanings, and usage.

Furthermore, such a student must do a lot of work (always with the dictionary beside him) on lexis, structures, and idioms.




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