How to get full use out of your dictionary

Bad writers write badly for one of two basic reasons: they chose the wrong words or they put their words in the wrong order. People sometimes chose the wrong word out of sheer carelessness: they don’t really think about what they are trying to say. Yet they often choose the wrong word because they do not know what the word really means. They have simply never looked it up in a dictionary. Diction is the choice or use of words in speech or writing. To develop good diction, you need to make heavy use of a good dictionary. Here are the things that a dictionary can teach you:

Spelling—A dictionary can show you the correct spelling of a word. It can also show you whether some alternative spellings are commonly used. I like to use the preferred spelling, which is listed first.

People with a poor grasp of phonics have trouble looking words up in a dictionary. Once you know the rules of English phonics, you can make a reasonable guess of how an English word should be spelled. Then, the dictionary can then tell you whether your guess was correct.

Part of speech—the dictionary entry will tell you what part of speech a word can be. The parts of speech are nouns, verbs, pronouns, adjectives, adverbs, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. Be careful about using a word as a verb if it is not listed as a verb in the dictionary. Often, knowing what part of speech a word is can help you solve grammatical problems, as you will see when you start diagramming sentences.

Pronunciation—Dictionaries often use a special code to how a word should be pronounced. Sometimes, they show that a word is pronounced differently in different varieties of English:

or·ange noun \ˈär-inj, ˈär(-ə)nj; chiefly Northern & Midland ˈȯr-inj, ˈȯr(-ə)nj\

The guide to pronunciation is helpful because some words (especially loan words from foreign languages) do not follow the normal rules of English phonics. Thus, you cannot just sound them out.

Word Correct pronunciation
cache cash
ennui ahn-WEE
façade fuh-SAHD
gaol jail
nuclear noo-clee-ar (not nucular)
quay key
viscount rhymes with pie count

The code that a printed dictionary uses to indicate pronunciation can be hard to understand. Fortunately, electronic dictionaries often have a voice synthesizer that actually pronounces the word for you.

Definitions—The definition tells you the meaning of the word. Often, the word has more than one definition. Some dictionaries list the oldest definition first. Others list the most common definition first. Study the definition to figure out what the word really means.

The difference between the almost right word & the right word is really a large matter—it’s the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.—Mark Twain

To find the right word, you may have to use a thesaurus. A dictionary organizes words according to how they are spelled. A thesaurus groups words according to their meaning. Many electronic dictionaries have a built-in thesaurus.

Embarrassing Mistakes

Acyrologia is a Greek term meaning the inexact, inappropriate, or improper use of a word. Comedians often misuse words on purpose, for comedic effect. However, you probably don’t want to make funny mistakes like that by accident.

A malapropism is the use of a word that sounds similar to the right word but has a completely different and often comical meaning. The term comes from the name of a fictional character Mrs. Malaprop, from Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s 1775 comedy The Rivals, who often made that kind of mistake when speaking. Her name is a play on the French term “mal à propos” which means inappropriate. These terms are also called Dogberryisms, after the character Officer Dogberry in Shakespeare’s Much Ado About Nothing. Fans of the Canadian mockumentary series The Trailer Park Boys call them Rickyisms:

  • Go get some hyposuction! (liposuction)
  • Leahy was my mother’s mating name. (maiden name)
  • Why do you look like Indianapolis Jones? (Indiana Jones)
  • It doesn’t take rocket appliances (rocket science) to realize that all you gotta do …
  • Instead of growing dope six or seven times through denial and error.… (trial and error)
  • Now, I know that I’m supposed to swallow my prize.… (swallow my pride)
  • It’s a catch-23 situation. (Catch-22)
  • What if he has radies? (rabies)
  • Basically, peach and cake. (It’s a piece of cake.)
  • He passed with flying [expletive deleted] carpets. (flying colors, which means that a flag is up)
  • What comes around is all around! (What comes around goes around.)

Egg Corns

Egg corns are a particular kind of malapropism. They involve the substitution of a common modern word for an unfamiliar, archaic, or obscure word:

Table of Egg Corns
Egg Corn Original Term
egg corns acorns
sparrow grass asparagus
ex-patriot expatriate
a posable thumb opposable thumb
a hair’s breath a hair’s breadth
a tough road to hoe a tough row to hoe
towing the line toeing the line
airways airwaves
oldtimer’s disease Alzheimer’s disease
baited breath bated breath
bobwire barbed wire
beyond the pail beyond the pale
Cadillac converter catalytic converter
a blessing in the skies a blessing in disguise
for all intensive purposes for all intents and purposes


Usage Notes

Often, the dictionary will give you some examples of how the word is commonly used in English. Sometimes, the dictionary will explain the debates about how a word should or should not be used. For example, Merriam-Webster’s dictionary gives a discussion of whether the word they can be used to mean just one person:

They used as an indefinite subject (sense 2) is sometimes objected to on the grounds that it does not have an antecedent. Not every pronoun requires an antecedent, however. The indefinite they is used in all varieties of contexts and is standard. They, their, them, themselves: English lacks a common-gender third person singular pronoun that can be used to refer to indefinite pronouns (as everyone, anyone, someone). Writers and speakers have supplied this lack by using the plural pronouns <and every one to rest themselves betake — Shakespeare> <I would have everybody marry if they can do it properly — Jane Austen> <it is too hideous for anyone in their senses to buy — W. H. Auden.> The plural pronouns have also been put to use as pronouns of indefinite number to refer to singular nouns that stand for many persons <’tis meet that some more audience than a mother, since nature makes them partial, should o’erhear the speech — Shakespeare> <a person can’t help their birth — W. M. Thackeray> <no man goes to battle to be killed. — But they do get killed — G. B. Shaw>. The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts. This gives you the option of using the plural pronouns where you think they sound best, and of using the singular pronouns (as he, she, he or she, and their inflected forms) where you think they sound best.


Word Choice

Etymology—The etymology of the word is an explanation of where the word came from, such as whether it came from German, Latin, or Greek. Most of the simple and powerful words in the English language came from Old English, which was the language of the Angles and Saxons who invaded the British Isles in the 6th century. If you want your writing to be clear and strong, use Anglo-Saxon words whenever possible. In the following passage from a famous speech by Winston Churchill, all of the words except the underlined words came from Old English:

We shall go on to the end. We shall fight in France, we shall fight on the seas and oceans, we shall fight with growing confidence and growing strength in the air, we shall defend our island, whatever the cost may be. We shall fight on the beaches, we shall fight on the landing grounds, we shall fight in the fields and in the streets, we shall fight in the hills; we shall never surrender.

To make your writing strong and crisp, use Anglo-Saxon words instead of Latin or French words*
Old English (Anglo-Saxon) Origin Romance (Latin or French) Origin
ask enquire
begin originate, initiate
behead decapitate
belly abdomen
bless consecrate
break up disintegrate
brotherhood fraternity
chew masticate
curse execrate
drink imbibe
eat consume
fair blond
firm adamant
flay, fleece, skin excoriate
flood (verb) inundate
free (verb) liberate, emancipate
freedom liberty
friendly amicable
frighten intimidate
gap discontinuity
job position
large capacious
lie prevaricate
meet encounter
mindful pensive
near adjacent
sail navigate
shorten abbreviate
snail escargot
spit expectorate
strong powerful
sweat perspire
take for oneself appropriate
talkative loquacious
think cogitate
thrifty parsimonious
twinkle scintillate
understand comprehend
very bad pernicious
wish desire
work together collaborate
worship venerate
yield capitulate
*Some short words that came from Old English are so strong and crisp that you cannot say them in polite company. These short words, usually with only four letters, often refer to body parts or bodily functions. However, they often feel like exactly the right word to say, such as when you hit your thumb with a hammer.