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How to Use the Information in your Dictionary

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Reading - finding out the meaning of a new word.

Sometimes there is more than one meaning of a word. You can choose the right one by:

Example: "I fell into the water and had to walk home dripping wet."

Click on the right meaning:

Meaning 1: With drops of water or liquid falling off.
Meaning 2: Fat that comes out of hot meat.

Example: "I parked my car in the drive."

Meaning 1: (Noun, countable) A short private road in front of a building, especially a garage.
Meaning 2: (Verb) To control a moving vehicle, such as a car.

As well as finding out the meaning, you also need to know about the usage: i.e. what situations this word is used in. Are there any collocations (words that often go together; e.g. a light meal) and connotations (words which describe the same thing, but give you a good or bad impression; e.g. 'freedom fighter' and 'terrorist')?

You should also think about commonality, or frequency of use, i.e how common the word is or how frequently you personally will use it. For less common words, it may be enough simply to recognise them in context; for common or frequently used words, or words relatingto your subject or speciality, you should also be able to produce them in speech or writing.

Listening and Pronunciation - remembering words you hear, looking them up in your dictionary and learning how to pronounce them correctly from the dictionary.

For both of these skills you need to learn and understand the phonemic alphabet of English. Each dictionary entry has pronunciation information, for example, than = /n/ The = a 'th' sound, and the = a short 'a' sound. The diagonal lines / / show the start and finish of the sounds so that you can see it is a sound, not a spelling.

When you have learned this system you will be able to listen to a new word and write down the pronunciation. Then you can repeat the word to a teacher and ask about it, or you can use one of the pronunciation dictionaries in CILL to look up the spelling of the word.

When you know the system you will also be able to find out how to pronounce a word correctly. This is very useful, for example in presentations, where your audience may be confused or unimpressed if your pronunciation is incorrect.

To learn this system on the Internet, go to the CILL IPA Chart and listen to words containing the sounds.

If you are in CILL you can use the multimedia program 'Sounds', in the pronunciation menu of the computers. You can also borrow a copy of this program, and install it on your own computer.

Proof-reading - using your dictionary for checking your writing

There are 2 ways to use your dictionary to check your writing:

  1. to check the spelling - you can use British English or American English spelling, but be consistent, don't use 'color' (American English) and 'labour' (British English) in the same text, use 'color' and 'labor' (American English), or 'colour' and 'labour' (British English).
    Tip: Check the settings of your word processor to see if it is using British or American English. The official variety used in the Hong Kong Polytechnic University is British English, but most word-processing programmes are set to American English.

  2. to check the grammar and usage by using the codes (see the section below on Writing).

Here is a quick spelling quiz. These are common words that people frequently get wrong. See if you make the same mistakes, or if you know better. You can use your dictionary to help you. There are 5 questions and no time limit.

Click on the correctly-spelled word:

1. comittee

2. forty-four

3. sincereley

4. necesary

5. recomend







forty four





fourty four





Congratulations, you have finished. Now go on to the section on writing.


Writing - understanding the grammar (tense, part of speech etc.) and usage (formal/informal, polite/impolite, modern/dated etc.) of a word, especially by using the grammar abbreviations, or codes. This is important for writing correct sentences containing the word.

There are 2 stages:

  1. learning the meaning of the codes
  2. using the codes to help with your writing and proof-reading.


Learning the Meaning of the Codes

Different dictionaries use different codes, and you will need to learn the codes from your own dictionary. However, here are some of the more common and useful codes.

Most of the codes are easy, see if you can guess the meaning of these:









uncountable noun





unacceptable form





unusual word

ordinal number






Congratulations, you have finished successfully. Now go on to using the codes to help with your writing and proof-reading, or have a look at these other useful abbreviations:

appr approving: this means that the speaker is using this word to show that he or she approves of something. illus illustration: a picture
Brit British: a word with British English spelling or pronunciation, or which is mainly used in Britain infml informal
derog derogatory: rude about something or someone joc jocular: funny
emph emphatic: a very strong opinion or statement pl plural
euph euphemistic: a nice way to say something bad US United States: American English spelling, pronunciation or expression
fml formal usu usually


Using the Codes to Help with Your Writing and Proof-reading

This is divided into currency, register and grammar.

Currency - If a word is current, it is used generally now, at the present time.

Archaic Words - these are words that are out-of-date now, but were used hundreds of years ago and can be found especially in literature, for example, 'thee' /i:/ meaning you (singular).

Dated Words - out-of-date expressions. These can be quite modern, for example words from the 1960's such as 'groovy' ( /'gru:vI/ an adjective meaning attractive or excellent) are now dated.



Approval - these are words which describe something and show your approval of it, for example 'bonny' means cute or good-looking, e.g. in 'He's a bonny baby.'

Formality - words used in formal situations. Usually there are also more common words that mean nearly the same thing. For example, 'to controvert' means to argue. The adjective, 'controversial', is more common and less formal .

Politeness - be careful to avoid derogatory wordswhich are rude about something or someone. An example is 'puerile', which means silly and childish.

Euphemism - a euphemism is a nice way to describe something bad or taboo, for example, the expression 'He passed away' means that he died.

Irony - this means that something has an opposite meaning to the words used, for example 'a fine mess'. 'Fine' usually means something good, but in this case it means a bad mess.

Jocularity - jocular words are amusing (but not always tasteful or diplomatic) descriptive words.

Rhetoric - rhetorical words used in very formal situations that sound strange if they are used in normal conversation; e.g. 'alas' as an expression of sadness.

Sexist - sexist words are words that categorise things according to gender. For example in modern business English the person in charge of a meeting is called the 'Chair' or 'Chairperson', rather than the Chairman or the Chairwoman. However, different cultures have different attitudes towards sexist language.

Taboo - a taboo subject is one that is not mentioned by people in that culture. For example, death is a taboo subject in Chinese culture. Pay and age are often taboo subjects.


In addition to Register, English contains a lot of Idioms, or Idiomatic language.

These are phrases in which the overall meaning is something different from the definitions of the individual words.

For example, to work flat out means to work at full capacity.

A pipe dream is a hope, belief or plan that is very unlikely to come true.

To have a screw loose means to be a little mad or eccentric, while to be a few sandwiches short of a picnic means to be a little stupid or slow.

You can look up idioms in a specialised dictionary or choose an appropriate headword, usually the noun or verb, and  find it in an ordinary dictionary. When you come across a new one, note it in your personal vocabulary book.

Idiom Dictionaries

Longman Dictionary of Idioms
Thomas Hill Long and Della Summers, (Eds). 1979. Longman Group UK Limited.

Oxford Dictionary of Current Idiomatic English, Vol.2: Phrase, Clause and Sentence
By A. Cowie, R. Mackin, and I. McCaig. London: Oxford University Press.



Grammar codes explain the part of speech (e.g. noun, adjective) of a word, and how a word fits into a phrase or sentence.

The grammar codes are placed either after the pronunciation information, or to the right of the entry. Here are two examples with the grammar codes in red:

discard /'dIska:d; 'dIskard/ v [Tn] (a) throw (sth) out or away: old discarded clothes (b) stop using, wearing etc. (sth that is no longer useful) discard one's winter clotes in spring, discard outdated beliefs. (c) give up (unwanted playing cards): She discarded a four, and picked up a king.

From the Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary.

discard /dIska:d/, discards, discarding, discarded. If you discard someone or something, you get rid of them or have nothing more to do with them because you no longer want them or need them. v + o
= ditch

From the Collins Cobuild English Language Dictionary.

v = verb
[Tn] = Transitive and noun. The phrase or sentence should have a subject, followed by a transitive verb (a verb followed by an object) and a direct object. The direct object can be a noun, noun phrase or a pronoun. See the Oxford Advanced Learner's English-Chinese Dictionary, page 1874.

v + o = verb + object

ditch = 'to ditch' means nearly the same as 'to discard'.

Different dictionaries have different codes. You should:

  1. Check the coding system before you buy a dictionary to see if you can understand it. There might be complicated grammatical terms that you don't understand. Click here for a glossary of dictionary words.
  2. Read the information at the front or back of your dictionary to see how the coding system works.

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