Several Steps How to Use a Dictionary
A dictionary can be a very handy tool. Besides helping with spelling and word meanings, being able to use a dictionary effectively and regularly is a perfect way to improve English language skills through the dictionaryʼs range of other helpful information on everyday language usage and grammar.
Step 1: familiarise yourself with your dictionary...
familiarise yourself with your dictionary

Dictionaries vary in approach. The best way to learn how to use your particular dictionary effectively is to read its introductory section where youʼll find out how the entries are arranged. The introductory section of your dictionary will explain important information such as the abbreviations and pronunciation symbols used throughout the entries. There may also be information on pronunciation of words with similar spellings; this can be helpful if you have only heard a word and youʼre not sure of its spelling. For example, if you hear “not”, it might also be “knot” but the “k” is silent, and this list can help you with suggestions.
Step 2: Know how to look up a word...
Know how to look up a word

When you come across a word you donʼt recognise or know the meaning of, keep a note of it. When you get around to looking it up, here is the sequence to follow:
  • Proceed to the letter of the alphabet that your word begins with. For example, “dog” begins with “d”. Donʼt forget the possible spellings for trickier words, such as “gnome” begins with a “g”, or “psychology” begins with a “p”, or “knock” begins with a “k”, etc.
  • Check for the guide words. These are located in the upper corner of each page and give you an indication of how close you are to locating your word, speeding up the process of going through the pages.
  • Once close, use the second letter of your word to run down the page and locate your word. For example, if you were looking for the word “futile”, “u” is the second letter. Perhaps you will see “furrow/futtock” in the upper left corner of the left page and “futtock plate/gaberlunzie” in the upper right corner of the right page. Now you know that “futile” is going to be located on one of these two pages.
  • Scan down the list of entry words moving past “Furry” and “Fuse” and “Fuss”. Since the example word begins with “Fut”, go past all the “Fur” and all the “Fus” words alphabetically until you reach the “FUT” area of the page. In this example, move right down through “Fut” and “Futhark” and this is at last, where you will find “futile”.
Step 3: Know how to make the most of your find...
Know how to make the most of your find

Once youʼve located the word, there are several useful elements that you can discover about the word from the dictionary entry. Read the information given about this entry, and depending on your dictionary, you might find many things:
  • A definition of the word.
  • One or more pronunciations. Look for a pronunciation key near the beginning of the dictionary to help you interpret the written pronunciation. Learn how to use the stress marks, as these will aid your pronunciation. The stress mark ʼ is place just prior to the syllable where the stress is placed.
  • Capitalization, where relevant.
  • Prepositions and their use with the word in question.
  • Irregular endings for verbs.
  • Synonyms and antonyms. You can use these in your writing, or as further clues towards the wordʼs meaning.
  • An etymology, derivation, or history of the word. Even if you donʼt know Latin or Ancient Greek, you may find that this information helps you to remember or understand the word.
  • Examples or citations of how the word is used. Use these to add context to the meaning of the word.
  • Derived terms and inflections (I am, you are, etc).
  • Phrases or idioms associated with the word, and slang usage. In addition, the dictionary may explain whether a word is formal or informal.
  • Plurals of nouns.
  • Near neighbor words that might be related.
  • Spellings in other English (US English, British English, Australian English, etc.)
Step 4: Think about how the information youʼve found relates to the...
Think about how the information youʼve found relates to the word as you encountered it

If there are multiple definitions, decide which one matches your source or context for the word and notice how the different definitions are related to one another. In an English dictionary, the most common meaning is usually placed first where there are multiple meanings.

Try using your new word in a sentence. If itʼs difficult to spell, write it a few times to help yourself remember it.
Step 5: Use your dictionary for other purposes than looking up a wo...
Use your dictionary for other purposes than looking up a word

Many dictionaries come with an array of other useful information. Some of the information that you might find in your dictionary includes:
  • Standard letters for jobs, RSVPs, filing complaints, official writing, etc.
  • Maps and geographical information.
  • Statistics on population.
  • Weights, volume and measurements.
  • Lists of countries, cities, capitals, etc.
  • Flags of countries, states, provinces, regions, etc.
  • Lists of famous or historical people.
  • Lists of facts.
Step 6: Learn how to use an online dictionary...
Learn how to use an online dictionary

Online dictionaries are easy. Choose a suitable free online dictionary, or a subscription one if your place of work or study subscribes, and simply type in the word youʼre looking for. The search machine will return the word to you and the definition section should contain most of the elements discussed above. Note that free services may not be as comprehensive as a subscription or book dictionary, so keep this in mind when youʼre not sure that youʼve found the right answer.
  • Make use of the audio content provided with online dictionaries. This can help considerably when youʼre unsure how to pronounce the word.
  • To use Google to find online definitions, type: “define: futile”. The search engine will only look for definitions.
Step 7: Have fun using a dictionary...
Have fun using a dictionary

The last step is the most fun – simply browse a dictionary to enlighten yourself about new words now and then. Just open the dictionary up to any page and scan the page for words that are unfamiliar or seem interesting. Pinpoint them, read the definition and try to add the new word to your thinking or talking during the next few days until it becomes a remembered part of your natural vocabulary.
  • Play the dictionary game with friends. This consists of getting some friends together and a dictionary. The first player looks up a challenging word and uses it in a sentence. The other players have to guess if the use of the word is accurate or an outright fabrication. If a player guesses correctly, itʼs their turn next.
  • Another dictionary game: Each player chooses a word which should be familiar to the other players, then reads out the dictionary definition. The other players compete to guess the word as quickly as possible – perhaps even shouting out while the definition is still being read.