Dictionaries: an entryway to proper expression

If you are the type of person who loves to voice their mind, either via text or speech, you must have found yourself in a situation where an idea springs up in your head, but you have trouble trying to expound it to others the way you want to say it, which can be quite frustrating. Perhaps you’re not so expressive with your thoughts, but time and time again you encounter a word you are unfamiliar with, hampering your reading comprehension. Fortunately, several people have taken the necessary steps to tackle these issues and have compiled enormous lists of words with their meanings for everyone to consult. These lexical compendia are commonly known as dictionaries

Dictionary organisation

A dictionary is usually organized as a list of word entries, ordered alphabetically, with each entry providing a simple but concise definition (or definitions) for a particular term. In addition, a dictionary entry usually specifies the class of the word being consulted (i.e. noun, adjective, verb, etc.), and if space permits it, an example of the word in use (i.e. how it is used in a sentence). Many dictionaries also include the pronunciation of the word, though the manner in which this information is provided varies: some employ simpler, down to earth instructions of how to pronounce a word (v.g. the word “auspice” is shown to be pronounced “awspis” in English), while others employ the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet) to provide a more accurate pronunciation of the term (v.g. the word “church” is pronounced “/ tʃɜrtʃ /”). The following image showcases the main components that comprise a dictionary entry (taken from Dictionary.com):

Now, it is important to know that, even though most dictionaries share the same basic traits, not all of them focus on performing the same functions. There are many types of dictionaries, each crafted for a specific type of inquiry.

Types of dictionaries

General Purpose (Monolingual) Dictionary: The most common kind around. Written in a single language, their main function is to provide concise, easy-to-read definitions for each of the words listed, alongside a clarifying example of how to use it, and the way it is pronounced. Aimed mostly at native speakers and advanced learners, they’re quite useful for finding out what a particular word means. Common examples are the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English, and the Oxford English Dictionary.

Bilingual Dictionary: Your most reliable friend if you’re learning a second language (besides real people, of course). In these, you will find entries with one or more possible translations for a particular term, alongside the way it is pronounced in the target language (is in these cases where the use of IPA pronunciation becomes necessary). If the format of the dictionary allows it, each entry might also contain an example of the word in use. One of the particularities of this type of dictionary is the sometimes-overwhelming amount of possible translations for a singular term. In other words, a term that in your native language has only two definitions might have five or more meanings in the target language (for example, the English word “up” can mean “levantado”, “arriba”, “expirado” y “hasta” in Spanish). Common examples of this type of dictionary are the Larousse Pocket Dictionary series and the Collins Pocket Dictionary series.

Thesaurus: Its name might be deceitful, as its focus is not dinosaurs or prehistoric creatures of any kind – instead, a thesaurus provides lists of synonyms and antonyms (i.e. words with a similar meaning, and words that mean the opposite) for each term it covers. This makes them one of the most useful types of dictionaries for writing since it allows you increase the lexical variety of your texts, avoiding repeating the same terms over and over while adding layers of nuance to the ideas presented. Common examples of thesauri are Thesaurus.com, the Macmillan Thesaurus, and the Merriam-Webster Thesaurus.

“Informal” Dictionary: Most dictionaries focus on listing the “correct way” in which words should be employed, even though the ever-changing nature of language makes it practically impossible to establish a singular version of it as the “official” one. However, attempts are made at cataloging the myriad of manners in which speakers and writers twist and adapt language to their particular needs – these are known as “informal” (as in non-standard) dictionaries, and they cover all the deviations from the “standard” forms of a particular language, from slang to regional variations. One of the most prominent examples of this type of dictionary is the Urban Dictionary, where users vet which terms are accepted as valid means of expression, and which are not. Other examples include the and the Dictionary of South African English.

Specialized Field Dictionary: If you happen to be reading a legal document like an insurance policy or dared to read one of Immanuel Kant’s philosophical works, you might have a harder time trying to understand what you’re reading than if you were reading a regular text suffering from adjectives. In order to bridge the gap between the complex, uncommon terms that might appear in the aforementioned types of text, there are dictionaries focused on the technical lexicon employed in a specialized field, like law, politics, and medicine. The definitions provided in these types of dictionaries tend to be longer than those of the previous types, since each entry not only aims at providing a definition for each term, but it must also explain what each concept means applied in the context of the field it covers. Common examples of this type of dictionaries are the Black’s Law Dictionary, the Dictionary of Ophthalmology, and the Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy.

Encyclopedic Dictionary: Similar in purpose to Field Dictionaries, but different in the range of topics they cover, this type of dictionary collects terms and concepts from all areas of knowledge and explains each entry in a thorough but concise manner. From animals to historical battles to countries, Encyclopedic Dictionaries are very useful for improving your general knowledge about the world around. Common examples of this type of dictionary are the Petit Larousse Illusté Dictionary (available in French, Spanish and Italian) and the Oxford Encyclopedic English Dictionary.

Etymological Dictionary: This type of dictionary might be included in the Specialized Field Dictionary category, but etymological dictionaries don’t focus on just one group of closely-related lexical terms. An etymological dictionary catalogs the history of each word, tracing back its roots to previous versions of a language. In this manner, you can get to easily identify which words are “native” words and which are borrowings, learn which words are related among them, or know how old a term really is. Common examples of etymological dictionaries are the Online Etymology Dictionary and the Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology. 

As we have seen, there is quite a variety of dictionaries options for you to use; the key is to know where to look for the answers you’re looking for. There are other types of dictionaries not listed here: phrasal verbs dictionaries for distinguishing when to use a particular phrasal verb, collocations dictionaries for getting used to the fixed expressions of a language, and even rhyme dictionaries in case you are lacking inspiration when writing a poem or a song. There is a dictionary for every occasion, and thanks to smartphones and pocket format, you can consult them at any moment. So next time you don’t know how to say that brilliant idea you’ve concocted in your mind, or have trouble adding flavor to a text you’re writing, remember that there is always a dictionary ready to help you.


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