Editors Note: Do you sometimes get lost in the lexicon? Noah Webster never intended this, but some people go to look up a word and find so much fascinating nomenclature, they just forget what they were doing! If so, this dictionary manual won't be of much use to you, but the funny thing is, this tongue-in-cheek how-to guide actually has pretty good instructions and could possibly improve your lexicography.

How to Use a Dictionary

Online dictionaries are occasionally lacking in detail or otherwise faulty, so you will need to know how to look up a word in a dictionary. Yes, we are referring to a real-world dictionary which you can hold in your hands. Hopefully, you have one in your house, but if not, you may be able to find one at the library.


1. Figure out what letter your target word starts with (i.e. PSYCHOTIC would start with a P; and GNOME would start with a G; and words like KNOCK, KNICKERS and KNOB would naturally begin with a K). For the purposes of this article, we will look up the word FUTILE

2. Open the dictionary so that it lies flat on the table before you. In the upper corners of the pages, notice the GUIDE WORDS. Find the section dealing with words beginning with the letter of your target word. If you see guide words beginning with the letter E, then move a few pages forward to the F section.

3. Consider the second letter of your target word, in this case, U. You must move along until you find guide words beginning with FU. Perhaps you will see furrow / futtock in the upper left corner of the left page and futtock plate / gaberlunzie in the upper right corner of the right page. Now you know that FUTILE is going to be located on one of these two pages.

4. Scan down the list of entry words moving past FURRY and FUSE and FUSS. Since your word begins with FUT, you must go past all the FUR and all the FUS words alphabetically until you reach the FUT area of the page. In our example, you will need to move right down through FUT and FUTHARK and this is at last, where you will find FUTILE.

5. Read the entry word.

6. Revel in the amount of information given. You will see in your entry not only the definition of the word, but also pronunciation, synonyms, antonyms, and, very often, the derivation. In this case, the word derives from the Latin word FUTILIS, meaning that which easily pours out. In other words USELESS. If you have gotten this far in reading, you will have benefited from my attempt to rectify what was up to now a seemingly useless article.


* Dictionaries vary in approach. The best way to learn how to use your particular dictionary effectively is to read the introductory section which explains how entries are arranged in your very own reference book.
* If you can't seem to locate your word, make sure you are spelling the word correctly. For example, you won't find ISOTOPE in the dictionary if you are looking in the A section, which you might be tempted to do if, for example, your chemistry teacher speaks with a bit of a southern accent.

Article added: 19 October 2007

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