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How to use (or misuse) a dictionary

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Written by Stan Carey

A simple view of dictionaries is that they contain definitions of words. This is certainly one of their main features. But dictionaries offer lots of other information about words and phrases, including their pronunciation, secondary senses, grammatical category, inflections (see the ‘Word Forms’ boxes in Macmillan Dictionary), and use in the language, shown through example sentences.

A dictionary may also provide synonyms, etymology, and information about a word’s frequency in the language. Readers looking for one particular thing may end up browsing an entire page or clicking through to other entries, curious about the many facets of a word and the different relationships it can have with the language. Serendipity abounds.



It’s also possible to not use a dictionary properly. Here’s an example. When I wrote an A–Z of English usage myths on Twitter a while ago, one reader baulked at my suggestion that the word unique is gradable – that you can say something is ‘fairly unique’ or ‘very unique’. I’ll call this reader Mr P, for prescriptive. Mr P believed that unique was absolute – that something is either unique or not. On the face of it, it’s a reasonable claim.

To support his position, Mr P linked to a dictionary entry for unique and said, ‘That’s the definition.’ But when I visited the page, I found more than just the definition that Mr P approved of – the ‘one of a kind’ sense. Just below it was a secondary sense showing that unique also means special or unusual. In Macmillan Dictionary, this is the primary sense.

Scrolling down, I found a usage note on the complications of unique, including an explicit assertion that this broader sense of the word is ‘grammatically acceptable’. If Mr P had read past the first line, he would have had to revise his position. At the very least, he would not have linked to the dictionary in trying to argue his case. When I showed him that the broader sense of unique was considered valid, Mr P, to his credit, accepted the facts.

So it’s useful to know the various features that a dictionary offers. To this end, Macmillan has created a helpful new page, ‘Anatomy of a dictionary entry’, which breaks down all the parts, showing readers exactly what they’re looking at. It also links to a recently expanded Glossary of dictionary terms, which gathers together all the relevant linguistic terms, from abbreviation to zero article. There’s more to a dictionary entry than meets the eye!

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About the author

Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.

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