Why to use a dictionary.

You know what a dictionary is, right? That big, 3000 page, dust-covered book at the top shelf of your bookshelve. The one you never dared to look at because you knew the font would be maybe -20 and you didn’t want to have to squint and find the right word, only to discover you’re spelling it wrong and need to try again.

Good news! That’s not the case anymore.

First of all, many computers have built in dictionaries. If they don’t, google has a good dictionary. There are also dictionaries available for your touch, so you can have one wherever you go.

So why don’t you dare use it? Or why would you even want to use it? They’re only for when you’re really stuck, right?

Not exactly. I use a dictionary all the time and it’s not because I don’t always know the meaning of a word, but because I want to find a better word.

1) Dictionaries are great to know the meaning of words. Sometimes we think we know the meaning of words that we really don’t know fully. Case in point: I talked with someone this past week about the word vehemently. I said I generally think of the world vehemently as angry and tense. But if you look it up, it means “Showing strong feeling, forceful, passionate, or intense.” In the way this person wanted to use it, it worked and it worked well. but I wouldn’t known that if I didn’t look it up in the dictionary. My perception of the word was not accurate with what the word really meant, and oftentimes, I find that to be true.

2) Dictionaries almost always contain a thesaurus. As a writer, this is a very useful tool. Say I’m writing a paper and I use the same word ten times on one page. Even if I have it spread out over the whole page, ten times is quite a lot. So I look up my word and find another word that replaces it, one that on occasion will sound better than the original word, or mean something better.

Case in point: I wanted to point a one-sentence summary of my story. I came up with:

A youngnaive pirate questions everything after her ship accepts a new passenger.

I didn’t like “young, naive” at all. It sounded too repetitive and vague. It didn’t fully capture the attitude I was trying to find in this young girl. So I began looking words up and I eventually came up with:

An ingenuous pirate begins to question everything about her life after befriending a desperate brother.

(more on this process and the sentence development  here. Why to do one-sentence summaries coming next week.)

Ingenuous means, “(of a person or action) innocent and unsuspecting.”  with a futher note here:

Most people would rather be thought of as ingenuous, meaning straightforward and sincere (: an ingenuous confession of the truth), because it implies the simplicity of a child without the negative overtones.

(From the Apple dictionary.)

This word worked out very well for what I wanted to imply, which was exactly the innocence, unsuspicious, carefree nature of this girl.

3) You need to replace like forms with like forms. Say I have my sentence:

The oscillate of conservatism in America came suddenly after the election of Barack Obama.

I decide that I’ve used swing to much and I need to replace it. So I look it up.

swing

verb

1 the sign swung in the wind oscillate, sway, move back and forth, move to and fro, wave, wag, rock, flutter, flap.

2 Helen swung the bottle brandish, wave, flourish, wield, shake, wag, twirl.

3 this road swings off to the north curve, bend, veer, turn, bear, wind, twist, deviate, slew, skew, drift, head.

4 the balance swung from one party to the other change, fluctuate, shift, alter, oscillate, waver, alternate, seesaw, yo-yo, vary.

5 informal : if we keep trying, we can swing this deal accomplish, achieve, obtain, acquire, get, secure, net, win, attain, bag, hook; informal wangle, land.

noun

1 a swing of the pendulum oscillation, sway, wave.

2 a swing to the New Democrats in this constituency change, move; turnaround, turnabout, reversal, about face, volte face, change of heart, U-turn, sea change.

3 a swing toward plain food trend, tendency, drift, movement.

4 a mood swing fluctuation, change, shift, variation, oscillation.

I pick the first word I see: oscillate. I decide that’s good and insert it into my sentence.

The oscillate of conservatism in America came suddenly after the election of Barack Obama.

Did that work? No. Because I used a verb in place of a noun. I didn’t look to make sure it looked correct.

4) To confirm the type of word you are using. I do this often in my job as a writing assistant. If a person comes to me with a paper and I’m reading it, I might see a word that I’m wondering if they can even use it. Oftentimes, I can identify what the word is suppose to be functioning as, so I look it up. If the word is really a noun, when it should be a verb, I can then give my person a concrete reason why they cannot do it.

5) To confirm the meaning of similar sounding words: My sister wrote on her facebook wall today:

warmth=happiness therefor I’m not happy.

I’m not going to focus on her puncuation. Instead, I want to focus on the word “therefor.”

Therefor is a word; when I write it now, there’s no red line. However, I look up the meaning and I find:

adverb archaic

for that object or purpose.

She did not mean that. She meant:

adverb

for that reason; consequently : he was injured and therefore unable to play.

Yes, therefore probably came from therefor, but a) it’s archaic, so she doesn’t really want to use it, and b) “[For that purpose] I am not happy,” does not work.

Keep this in mind with all words that sound alike, but don’t quite look like. Words like summary and summery, and others like that.

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About Abigail

I'm an elementary education major at a college in the Midwest. I might graduate as early as December '13 but more likely May '14. I write when I can. I also knit on occasion, draw, do homework and contradict teachers to make people think. :)

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