General information on dictionary use

What is a dictionary?

A dictionary is a reference book about words and as such it describes the functioning of individual words (sometimes called lexical items). It does so by listing these words in alphabetical order in the form of headwords, the words listed as entries in the dictionary.

What is the difference between a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a thesaurus?

Even though this section focuses on dictionaries, it will be useful initially to distinguish between a dictionary, an encyclopedia and a thesaurus. Both a dictionary and an encyclopedia are reference works, but whereas an encyclopedia conveys knowledge about the world as we know it (e.g. things, people, places and ideas), the dictionary gives information about certain items in the communication system (the language) used by people to exchange messages about the world.

A further distinction can be made between a dictionary and a thesaurus, where the latter can be seen as a word book which is structured around lexical items of a language according to sense relations, most notably synonomy (words having the same or very similar meanings) (Kirkness, 2004).

Click on the link below to access the online version of the Encyclopaedia Britannica:

What different types of dictionary are there?

One distinction that can be made is that between dictionaries that deal with one single language and those that deal with several languages. Firstly, a dictionary that deals only with one language is called a monolingual dictionary. For example, English monolingual dictionaries like the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE) or the Collins Cobuild Advanced Learner’s Dictionary (CCALD) have English headwords, English definitions, and all examples and additional information are given in English.

Secondly, a dictionary that deals with two languages (e.g. English-Swedish) is called a bilingual dictionary. For example, Norstedts Stora Svensk-Engelska Ordbok (Norstedts, 2000) presents headwords in Swedish, whereas meanings (translation equivalents) are given in English. Example sentences are often given in both languages.

Thirdly, a dictionary that deals with more than two languages is called a multilingual dictionary.

All these types of dictionary can furthermore be divided into general or specialised dictionaries. The general dictionaries, as the name implies, deal with the more general side of one or several languages. For example, Norstedts Stora Engelsk-Svenska Ordbok (Norstedts, 2000) is aimed a covering some 135,000 of the most commonly occurring words of English.

A specialized dictionary, on the other hand, focuses on a more narrow and specialized part of a language, for example the words used in engineering, medicine, aviation, experimental psychology, etc. The specialized dictionary is thus typically a subject-specific technical dictionary, but other types exist too, e.g. dictionaries of false friends, pictorial dictionaries, collocation dictionaries, idiom dictionaries, etc.)

For what purposes are dictionaries typically used?

Even though dictionaries can be used for many different purposes, a useful distinction that can be made is that between comprehension (decoding) and production (encoding) purposes. Nation (2001) provides the following lists of typical uses:

Typical comprehension uses are:

  • Looking up unknown words that are encountered when listening
    or reading

  • Confirming the meanings of partially known words

  • Conforming guesses from context


Typical production  uses are:

  • Looking up unknown words needed to speak or write

  • Looking up spelling, pronunciation, meaning, grammar, constraints
    on use, collocations, inflections and derived forms of partly known
  • Confirming the spelling, pronunciation, meaning etc. of known words.

  • Checking that a word actually exists

  • Finding a different word to use instead of a known one (a

  • Correcting errors and mistakes


Since this website is dedicated to academic writing, it will make sense to take a closer look at the process involved in production (encoding) of written language and the dictionary use typically needed in this process.

What information can be found in a dictionary?

Whatever type of dictionary you use, it is worthwhile spending some time with the user’s guide, i.e. the initial pages that explain what kind of information is provided in the dictionary, the layout of the entries, and often also a legend that explains what the symbols used in the dictionary mean.

In terms of what type of information is given in a typical entry, here is an example of what is normally found in a mono-lingual dictionary (here based on the structure in the Longman Dictionary of Contemporary English (LDOCE):

1. Spelling: the headword itself is given in its normal spelling, printed in bold. Headwords are arranged alphabetically in a dictionary.

2. Frequency information: symbols indicating how frequent the word is in spoken and written English. In LDOCE the symbols are boxes with either an’S’ (spoken) or a ‘W’ (written) followed by a number. For example, a box saying W2 means that the headword in question belongs to the second thousand most common words in written English.

3. Pronunciation: phonetic script, given within parentheses ( ) or slash / / brackets, tells us how to pronounce the word (the pronunciation of the word is transcribed following the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA)).

4. Word class: the word class (also called part-of-speech) of the word and other grammatical information is provided following conventional abbreviations, such as n for Noun and v for Verb.

5. Sense(s): when a word has more than one meaning, then the different senses are numbered. When a sense or a group of senses belong to a different word class, this is indicated. For each sense, a definition is given which at the same time also functions as an explanation of its meaning.

6. Collocations, phrasal use and the syntactic operation of the word: examples are given of how the headword may be combined with other words to form idiomatic language usage.

Naturally, dictionaries differ in terms of what information is provided and in what order, but the above example typically illustrates what types of information are included in an English Foreign Language (EFL) dictionary entry. As was stated above, it is worthwhile spending some time with the initial pages of a dictionary, where the entry structure and its symbols are explained.

Using monolingual dictionaries when writing academic English

Generally speaking, a slightly higher proficiency in a language is needed when using a monolingual dictionary than a bilingual dictionary (see Nation, 2001). This is so partly because definitions of words may sometimes contain infrequent words themselves, and explanations of usage of words may sometimes require fairly sophisticated grammar skills. Furthermore, monolingual dictionaries typically contain much more information about each word than do bilingual dictionaries.

One potential advantage of using monolingual dictionaries, as argued by Baxter (1980 [in Nation 2001: 291]), is that it should become clear to the user that meaning can be conveyed by a definition as well as by a single word. Examples of dictionaries that are especially suited to writing English are the Longman Language Activator (LLA) and the Oxford Collocations Dictionary for Students of English (OCDSE).

The LLA is a monolingual dictionary (English) which is structured around frequent headwords that can be seen to correspond to reasonably common concepts. For example, say we want to write a text about doctors. By looking up the entry doctor in the dictionary we get a wealth of information, such as the definition of the word, but more specifically we are presented with numerous examples of related words and concepts like physician, GP, specialist, surgeon, intern etc.

Moreover, we also get ample information about different kinds of doctors presented under headings such as "a doctor who treats mental illnesses", "a doctor who treats people’s teeth" and "a doctor who treats animals". This should provide a writer with a better and more nuanced understanding of what words to use in his or her text.

The OCDSE is a specialized monolingual (English) dictionary that focuses on the presentation of collocations. Broadly speaking, collocations are words that frequently occur together in a language, as used by native speakers. For example, in English the word combinations strong wind and heavy rain are natural-sounding collocations. However, *heavy wind and *strong rain are not.

The reason for this is strictly not a grammatical one. Rather, it has to do with the fact that certain words have, through convention, been used together with other words to the point that these words are now strongly linked to each other. Consequently, in order to write idiomatic English, a writer of a text must pay attention to how words are combined, not only in a strict grammatical sense, but also in a more lexical sense.

Even though a sequence of English is grammatically correct, it does not mean that the sequence sounds good when jugded by native speakers. For example, assume that a writer wants to produce a text on pollution and how to avoid it. Although a sequence like avoid pollution makes sense, it might not be what native speakers of English would typically say or write. By looking up the word pollution in OCDSE, our writer can find listed a number of verbs that can be used to express finer nuances of the notion of avoiding pollution, for example combat pollution, fight pollution and tackle pollution. This illustrates how a dictionary like the OCDSE can be used to find naturally sounding collocations for known words (and concepts).

Using bilingual dictionaries when writing academic English

A bilingual dictionary (sometimes called a translation dictionary) is good when we want to find translations of words, be it going from our mother tongue to a foreign language, or from a foreign language to our mother tongue. Bilingual dictionaries are particularly good when we want to write something in a foreign language. This situation entails turning ideas into language which means that we want to find word forms to express messages. Bilingual dictionaries that go from the mother tongue (L1) to the foreign language we want to use (L2) is normally seen as an effective way of doing this (Nation, 2001).