A dictionary can help you understand the meaning of new words, female learner finding a word and is reading the definition

Why are dictionaries important?

You can use a dictionary to look up the meaning of any words that you don’t understand. However, there are lots of different types of dictionaries, so which one should you use?

Let’s look at some of the different types of dictionaries to see which will be most helpful to you during your studies.

A dictionary is one of the most important tools during your time studying at a university. A good dictionary can help you understand your subject better, improve your communication and improve your grades by making sure you are using words correctly.

However, not all dictionaries are the same and if you don’t know how to use a dictionary correctly, it could actually teach you the wrong meaning of a word and make it more difficult to get a good grade.

Look at the four different types of dictionary below. Which dictionary do you think is the best choice when you don’t understand a new word?

Bilingual dictionary

A bilingual dictionary is a dictionary that has the word you are looking for translated into your own language. A bilingual dictionary usually only has a small amount of information about the word you are looking for but it is easy to understand because it is written in your native language.

Monolingual dictionary

A monolingual dictionary is written only in English. A monolingual dictionary has lots of different information about every word in English. These dictionaries have lots of information about grammar and pronunciation. A monolingual dictionary can sometimes be confusing because it has multiple definitions for every word.

Learner dictionary

A learner dictionary is similar to a monolingual dictionary because it is only in English and has lots of information about the word you are trying to find. However, a learner dictionary is a little bit easier to use than a standard monolingual dictionary and has clear examples and simplified language.

A subject-specific dictionary

A subject-specific dictionary is similar to a monolingual dictionary but it does not contain the general meaning of words, only the definitions that are suitable for the specific subject. Subject-specific dictionaries are very useful when you need to find out how a word is used differently in your subject area but they can be quite difficult to use and might not contain the word you are looking for.[1]


Your task

Imagine you are completing your assignment at university and you need to find the meaning of the word ‘generic’.

Look at the definition of generic in the four different types of dictionary, linked below:

Monolingual dictionary (Macmillan dictionary)

Bilingual dictionary (Google translate)

Learner dictionary (Cambridge Learner’s Dictionary)

Subject-specific dictionary (Oxford Concise Medical Dictionary)

Which dictionary do you think is the best choice? Why? What problems might you have using these definitions in real life?

[1] This essay was created by David Ridley (2016) for educational purposes. It is licensed for re-use under Creative Commons Attribution (CC BY). This license allows others to distribute, alter and build upon a created work, even commercially, as long as the original source is credited.

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This article is from the free online course:

English for Academic Study

Coventry University