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This content is taken from the Coventry University, The Alan Turing Institute & Macmillan Education's online course, Understanding English Dictionaries. Join the course to learn more.

Some common uses

The simplest use of a dictionary is to check the meaning of a word when we are reading – as long as we can find out what the word means in the text, we can carry on reading without finding out how it is pronounced, the other forms it takes, or which words it co-occurs with.

In order to use words in our own speech or writing, however, we have to know more about how they behave. Dictionaries vary in the amount of productive information they provide and how they provide it. Dictionaries for language learners often provide information about grammar, word frequency and collocations, for example, and online dictionaries often contain sound files to demonstrate the way a word is pronounced. Some dictionaries label words if their use is restricted in some way to warn users that they are old-fashioned, technical or considered impolite.

In the past, when all dictionaries were in the form of books, people were more likely to look up words when they were reading or writing rather than when they were speaking or listening. This is because the process of reading and writing usually allows more time for dictionary consultation – it’s difficult to look up a word in a book when you are in the middle of a conversation, or when you are listening to other people talking. It’s much quicker to look up words on a laptop or phone, so nowadays people use dictionaries for a wider range of activities.

Of course, dictionaries are consulted for other reasons too. For example, you might like to look up words to find out more about a language, its culture and history. You might find it fun to see what new words are becoming an accepted part of language and what they tell us about contemporary society.

Your task

Read this article from Lund University in Sweden, which outlines some of the purposes of dictionary use.

Can you think of any other possible purposes?

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University