When to use a dictionary?

For most beginning language learners, the typical dictionary entry provides too much information. Still, there are few cases where it's good to read a dictionary entry for a word.

Dictionary entries are helpful when you are already familiar with the basic words in a sentence. If the meaning of a sentence does not seem clear, then a good dictionary may provide sentences and examples of usage that may help clarify nuances of meaning.

A citation dictionary helps:

  • To decide between the use or meaning of two similar words.
  • To determine whether a secondary definition is more appropriate for a translation, based on the context.
  • To read examples of how the word is used by other authors (this website and large dictionaries with citations provide these).
Tips for using a dictionary

Sometimes you may not have access to technology to help ease the pain of looking up words and managing the maintenance of vocabulary lists, if so, whether it's a glossary at the back of a book or a giant desk dictionary, consider using these tips to improve your interactions with a dictionary.

  • Mark up your dictionary or glossary with a pen; while a story or poem marked with a pen detracts from it's enjoyment and annoys the reader, a dictionary or a glossary is just meant to be used intermittently and as an optional aid, thus pen markings there won't impact the reader's enjoyment of the literature.
  • Every time you look up a word, make a mark next to that word; first time make a "-", second time, make it into a "+", and so on, until it looks like "*", and if you still have trouble remembering the meaning, underline the keyword.
  • If the word is a compound word, look up any of the basic building block words, or prefixes or suffixes that may be influencing the meaning.
  • If the definition provides any example sentences, look up any unknown words in those sentences so that you begin to build a context for the meaning of the unknown words.

A large dictionary can be a useful aid when writing a paper or a document where the meaning of one particular word can change the meaning of the passage. Most of the time, a reader will make better progress learning and reading German using software such as ReadGerman.com to help keep track of vocabulary and learning new meanings.

Written by Todd Cook. Language enthusiast, modern outdoorsman, software craftsman. Find him on or

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