Advanced Dictionary Skills

Part I: Paper Dictionaries

A good dictionary tells us what words mean, how they sound, where they came from, and how they are used. Most people are aware of all that, but they may not be aware of two special features of dictionaries that are particularly useful:

I. For advanced writers and speakers, perhaps the most useful feature of a good, comprehensive dictionary is usage. Only the larger dictionaries (such as the Webster's International or the Complete Oxford) provide practical examples of how words are used in actual speech

The entry below (moratorium) is reproduced from Webster's Third International Dictionary. One of the definitions given for moratorium is "waiting period set by some authority: a delay officially required or granted." Now, this is a bit too abstract, and doesn't tell me how the word may be used in the real world. To remedy that deficiency, in a comprehensive dictionary such a definition is normally followed by a living example of how someone used this word in that particular sense. Here, we are told, somebody by the name of Douglass Cater said or wrote: "usually there was at least one day's moratorium on news coming out of such background briefings."

mor a to ri um \ n, pl moratoriums or moratoria [NL, fr. LL, neut. of moratorius dilatory, retarding] 1 a : a legally authorized period of delay in the performance of a legal obligation or the payment of a debt <asked the legislature for a moratorium of one year on farm mortgage payments> b : waiting period set by some authority : a delay officially required or granted <usually there was at least one day's moratorium on news coming out of such background briefings —Douglass Cater>— compare Indulgence 3c 2 : a suspension of activity : a temporary ban on the use or production of something <so thorough was the moratorium on brains that nobody in power dared do any primary thinking —J. R. Chamberlain> <a moratorium on new systems —C. W. Thornthwaite>

Part II: Internet Dictionaries. Internet dictionaries accomplish a great deal that cannot be accomplished by paper dictionaries. To begin with, as you probably know from direct experience, you have to be a wizard to figure out the correct pronunciation of words from a conventional dictionary. Also,  in some cases, it’s difficult to visualize what they are talking about: no paper dictionaries can adequately explain, with mere words, what an aardvark or abacus look like. Moreover, the really good dictionaries, especially those providing examples of usage and origins of words, are expensive. As well, for those interested in foreign languages, both expense and pronunciation pose serious problems. Some internet dictionaries are free, and are often accompanied by sounds and pictures. One such dictionary is the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary:

Another is the Oxford Dictionary, available to you as a Wayne State University Student through Wayne State Libraries, which you can access from your home.

So, if you are not sure about shades of meanings of a particular word, you go to a mammoth dictionary like the Merriam-Webster International; if you are scheduled to give an oral presentation and are unsure about pronunciation, you may wish to either buy a speaking dictionary or get one, free, on the web.

Back to Senior Essay, Main Page