The perfect dictionary for you


By Joseph A. Salazar

Teacher at AIT Language School

Do you find it hard to understand some of the words you read in English? Would you like to express yourself more clearly and convincingly? Would you like to improve your vocabulary? If so, what you need is a good dictionary.  But which kind of dictionary should you choose?

Basically, there are three types of dictionary:

  1. The compact dictionary;
  2. The historical dictionary;
  3. The general purpose dictionary.

The compact, or pocket, dictionary is small and therefore limited in what it offers. At the other end of the scales is the historical, or exhaustive, dictionary. It explains the history of words, where they come from and how and when they acquired their present meanings. But probably the most practical dictionary is one that offers a compromise—the general-purpose type, often called desk, concise, or collegiate dictionary. Here are just some of the features that make it so useful.


Perhaps the most important feature of a dictionary is word definition. Many words have more than one meaning. For example, the word “lead” can be used as a verb to mean direct or go in front. But as a noun, “lead” is also the name of a metal. A dictionary will clarify both meanings. Some dictionaries actually give specimen phrases to explain the typical use of a word. For example, take the word “control.” Specimen phrases would include: control a country, control one’s emotions, control a fire, border control, control panel, under control, out of control.


As the letters of an alphabet cannot represent all the sounds used in spoken language—there are at least 47 such sounds in English—dictionary compilers have to devise ways of explaining how to pronounce words. Among the various systems is one that respells the words to match the sound as closely as possible and supplements this with diacritical marks. Whatever system your dictionary uses to distinguish sounds, it will provide an explanatory table. The dictionary will also show what syllables take the stress.


A fascinating feature of a dictionary is etymology—the roots, or origins from which words are derived. English is particularly rich in this respect because it has borrowed from many languages, such as Latin, Greek and Anglo-Saxon. By using a dictionary, you can become familiar with words or parts of words most frequently drawn from those languages. As you remember them, your vocabulary will grow.

Latin has made a great contribution to the English language. To take one example: We have many words arising from the Latin verb jacere (to throw). Consider the basic meaning of these verbs: project—throw forward; inject—throw in; eject—throw out; subject—throw under; reject—throw back; deject—throw down; object—throw against; and interject—throw between. So by knowing the root, jacere, and a few everyday prefixes, many words become instantly recognizable.

Many English words have come directly from Greek. Philanthropist (from philos, friend, and anthropos, man) means a friend of mankind. Photograph (from phos, light, and graphein, to write) literally means to write with light. Cacophony (from kakos, bad, and phōnē, sound) means a harsh, discordant sound. So, by becoming familiar with the derivations of words, it is possible to identify others.

It is not likely that you will remember all these things about every word you look up in a dictionary, nor should you try. Some words are not commonly used. But try to memorise those you feel you can and should use. Select words that will help you to communicate better. As your vocabulary improves you will find that you will become less dependent on a dictionary. Your reading will become more enjoyable and your speech will definitely improve.

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