Dictionaries are incredibly useful things. They can tell you everything you need to know about a word. However, they can be a bit confusing at first. So let’s talk about what you will find in a dictionary.
First, in a paper dictionary everything is alphabetized. So yes, knowing how to spell the word you are looking for his helpful. Same with online dictionary, though at least there it will usually prompt you with items similar to what you typed in.
So you have found an entry. Let’s say you want to know about the word abbreviate. Let’s look at a sample definition of the word from Merriam-Webster.com.
ab·bre·vi·ate: verb \ə-ˈbrē-vē-ˌāt\
First, we have the word with dots to mark the syllables, syllables being the smallest sound units in the English language. Next we have what part of speech the word is, in this case a verb. This tells us that we can use this verb to indicate a type of action. Between the two backslashes we get the syllables marked again along with incorrect spelling and funny lines and marks. This is how the word is depicted phonetically if you are not sure how it sounds. Or you can always go online, where the dictionary usually has a sound icon you can click on to listen to the word. Whew! We haven’t even gotten to the main definition yet!
At this point we are given other verb forms for abbreviate. Then we are finally given the definition, including what type of verb this is. It turns out that there is also a noun version – abbreviator is no doubt one who abbreviates. If there had been other forms for the exact same word, for example there is a noun, verb, and adjective definition for the word tarry, those would have been indicated at the top and each would have been discussed in turn.
Definition of ABBREVIATE
: to make briefer; especially : to reduce to a shorter form intended to stand for the whole
— ab·bre·vi·a·tor noun
Next, we are given several sentences that correctly use the word abbreviate so you can see exactly how it is used.
Examples of ABBREVIATE
You can abbreviate the word “building” as “bldg.”
“United States of America” is commonly abbreviated to “USA.”
We are then told the origins of the word abbreviate and when it first began being used in English. You will begin noticing patterns if you pay attention. The words that come from Old Norse for example are very different from the words that come from Latin.
Origin of ABBREVIATE
Middle English, from Late Latin abbreviatus, past participle of abbreviare— more at abridge
First Known Use: 15th century
Finally, several synonyms and antonyms for the words are suggested. If you have already used the word abbreviate several times in a paper and need a new word but don’t have a Thesaurus handy, a dictionary may offer a few synonyms and antonyms.
Related to ABBREVIATE
Synonyms: shorten, abridge, curtail, cut back, dock, elide, syncopate, truncate
Antonyms: elongate, extend, lengthen, prolong, protract
Not all dictionaries are equal. Some may be more detailed. Go to the Oxford English Dictionary if you want to know the obscurest meaning of a word. Some dictionaries may be less detailed. But these are some of the common features you will find in a dictionary.