Improving Your Vocabulary Dictionaries

Vocabulary is best extended by reading and writing. Memorizing lists of words has dubious value. The words are abstracted from any context, so that while you may learn the denotation you acquire little feeling for connotation and level of usage. Vocabulary should not be a forced plant but should grow naturally with learning and experience.

A good dictionary is the key to extending your knowledge of words. Try to keep one handy as you read. When you come upon a word you don't know, pause and look it up. If you can't stop or have no dictionary nearby, make a check in the margin (assuming the book is your own) or write the word on a piece of paper. Without such a reminder you will probably only remember that there was some word you intended to look up which now you can't recall.

As you write, don't be satisfied with thinking you know what a word means or how it is spelled or functions grammatically. If you aren't sure, open the dictionary. It's surprising how often what we think we know turns out to be wrong.

General Dictionaries

A general dictionary lists the words currently used by speakers and writers of a language or words readers are likely to come across in older literature. If it includes all such terms, it is unabridged. If it reduces the list by omitting many technical or archaic words, it is an abridged edition, sometimes called a desk dictionary.

Two unabridged dictionaries are standard for modern English: Webster's Third New International Dictionary (G. & C. Merriam Company) and the Oxford English Dictionary, familiarly known as the (Oxford University Press).

We'll return to these massive works a little later.

The abridged dictionary is of more immediate concern. Several good ones are available.1 Whichever you own, take a little time to get familiar with its contents and organization. A typical dictionary consists of three parts: the front matter, the word list, and the back matter or appendixes.

Front matter, which includes everything preliminary to the word list, varies from work to work, but in all cases it explains how the word list is set up, how to read an entry, what the abbreviations mean, and so on. In addition front matter will likely contain general information, valuable to any writer, about English spelling, pronunciation, grammar, and usage.

Back matter, too, varies from book to book. Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, for instance, discusses punctuation in its back matter and includes lists of famous persons, of important places, and of colleges in the United States and Canada. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language does not cover punctuation but includes people and places in the general word list.

Although the front and the back matter contain much important information, the chief part of a dictionary is its word list. To use the word list efficiently you need to understand how entries are organized and the kind of information they

1. The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (Houghton Mifflin Company); The Random House College Dictionary, Revised Edition (Random House); Webster's New World Dictionary, Second College Edition (Simon and Schuster); Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary (G. & C. Merriam Company); Webster's II New Riverside University Dictionary (Houghton Mifflin Company).

give. We'll look at two typical entries in some detail. But first a caution: while a dictionary is an authority, its authority is of a special and limited nature. It does not tell you how a word should be spelled or spoken or used; it simply tells you how it is spelled or spoken or used. The forms and meanings of words depend on the speakers and writers of English. Acting in unconscious collectivity, rather we, all of constitute the "authority." Lexicographers collect hundreds, even thousands, of citations for each word they list. From these they determine how the word is actually pronounced and spelled, what meanings it is given, and any regional, social, or occupational facts affecting its use. If a lexicographer has personal feelings about spelling, pronunciation, or definition, he or she does not substitute these for what the citations reveal.

The exact arrangement of information in a typical entry will vary a bit among dictionaries. But they all list words according to a principle of alphabetization explained in the front matter, and they all indicate spelling (along with any variations), stress, syllabication, pronunciation, grammatical function (verb, noun, adjective, and so on), the different senses in which the word is used (the order of these may be historical or it may be according to frequency), and usually information about the word's etymology (that is, its origin and history).

Here are two sample entries, each with explanations. The first is from Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary:

The second example comes from The American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language (see pages 340-345).

Unabridged Dictionaries

Occasionally you will come across a word not in your desk dictionary. Turn then to an unabridged work. The standard for American English is Webster's Third New International Dictionary (G. & C. Merriam Company). This is the volume you find in most libraries, usually on its own stand and open somewhere near the middle. (It should be left that way to protect the binding.)

Webster's Third New International lists more than 450,000 words, including many older expressions and technical terms omitted from abridgments. In addition to the customary explanations, its front matter contains extensive discussions of spelling, punctuation, plural forms, the use of italics, and the handling of compound words. Accompanying the word list are thousands of illustrations (a few in the form of color plates) and numerous tables (the chemical elements, for instance, the Indo-European language family, radio frequencies, time zones, and so on).

Even more massive is the Oxford English pub lished by the Oxford University Press in twelve volumes with four volumes of supplements. Several features distinguish the OED. It lists older words than the Third New International and arranges definitions in historical order, illustrating each sense by dated quotations (totaling about 1,800,000). These begin with the earliest known use of a word in a particular sense and include, if possible, at least one instance for every century thereafter until the present (or until the last known example in the case of obsolete words or meanings). The dated citations make the OED indispensable for scholars studying the history of words or ideas.

On the other hand, the OED is less useful for American English. For example, someone curious about the meaning of Chicago pool or the origin of OK will have to consult Webster's Third New International. Both unabridged dictionaries are necessary to a serious writer.

Special Dictionaries: Thesauri

Special dictionaries are restricted to a particular aspect of the general language or to the language of a specific group, profession, or region. There are hundreds of such works, many available in the reference section of most libraries.

'hab «it \ 'hab-at \ n [ME, fr. OF, fr. L habitus condition, character, fr. habitus, pp. of habere to have, hold—more at GIVE] 1 archaic: CLOTHING 2 a : a costume characteristic of a calling, rank, or function b : RIDING HABIT 3 : BEARING, CONDUCT 4 : bodily appearance or makeup : PHYSIQUE 5 : the prevailing disposition or character of a person's thoughts and feelings : mental makeup 6: a usual manner of behavior : CUSTOM 7 a : a behavior pattern acquired by frequent repetition or physiologic exposure that shows itself in regularity or increased facility of performance b : an acquired mode of behavior that has become nearly or completely involuntary 8 : characteristic mode of growth or occurrence 9 of a crystal: characteristic assemblage of forms at crystallization leading to a usual appearance 10 : ADDICTION

syn HABIT, HABITUDE, PRACTICE, USAGE, CUSTOM, USE, WONT mean a way of acting that has become fixed through HABIT implies a doing unconscious ly or without premeditation, often compulsively; HABITUDE implies a attitude or usual state of mind; PRACTICE suggests an act or method followed with regularity and usu. through choice; USAGE suggests a customary action so generally followed that it has become a social norm; CUSTOM applies to a practice or usage so steadily associated with an individual or group as to have the force of unwritten law; USE and WONT are rare in speech, and differ in that USE stresses the fact of repeated action, WONT the manner of it.


Main entry

Superscript1 indicates that this is the first of two or more homographs (words having the same spelling and sound but used in different senses).

The dot marks the syllabication. If you must split a word between lines, break it only at a point indicated by a dot. Pronunciation

In this dictionary the pronunciation is placed between slash marks and rendered in phonetic symbols (mostly similar in form to letters) whose values are listed at the bottom of each recto (right-hand) page.

The mark ' indicates stress. It is placed before the accented syllable (that is, the one spoken with greatest force). \Part of speech n = noun. Etymology

Placed within brackets, the etymology uses capital abbreviations for languages and lowercase abbreviations for other words: thus ME = Middle English, OF = Old French, L = Latin, fr. = from and pp. = past participle. Foreign words are italicized and their meanings are given in roman type without quotation marks. ^ SMALL CAPS, here and elsewhere throughout the entry, signal that a term should be consulted in its alphabetical place in the word list for further information relevant to habit Definitions

In this dictionary definitions are arranged in historical order. Different senses are distinguished by boldface arabic numerals; nuances within the same sense, by boldface lowercase letters. Archaic is a status label indicating that a word, or as in this case, a particular sense of a word, is used very rarely by contemporary speakers and writers.

Of a crystal is a subject label indicating a special sense of the word in a particular subject or profession, here crystallography. Synonyms

A discussion of a group of words similar in sense but subtly different in meaning or usage. After the entry in the main word list of each of the terms in small caps following habit, there is a reference to this discussion. Thus at the end of the entry for custom you will find "syn see HABIT." Homograph of habit, here a transitive verb meaning to clothe, to rJrficc

wake (wâk) v. woke (wok) or rare waked (wakt), waked or chiefly British & regional woke or woken (wô'kan), waking, wakes—intr. 1. a. To cease to sleep; become awake; awaken. Often used with up. b. To be brought into a state of awareness or alertness. 2. Regional. To keep watch or guard, especially over a corpse. 3. To be or remain awake.—tr. 1. To rouse from sleep; awaken. Often used with up. 2. To stir, as from a dormant or inactive condition; rouse: wake old animosities. 3. To make aware of; to alert. Often used with to: It waked him to the facts. 4. Regional, a. To keep a vigil over, b. To hold a wake over.—n. 1. a. A watch; vigil, b. A watch over the body of a deceased person before burial, sometimes accompanied by festivity. 2. British. A parish festival held annually, often in honor of the patron saint. 3. The condition of being awake: between wake and asleep. [Middle English wakien and waken, Old English wacian, to be awake and wacan (unattested), to rouse. See weg-2 in Appendix."']

Main entry

The superscript 1 indicates that this is the first of at least two homographs, different words with the same spelling and proW \ nunciation but different senses. \ \ Pronunciation

This is enclosed within parentheses and uses symbols and \ \ marks set out in a table at the beginning of the word list. Part of speech

A, v. = verb (intr. - intransitive and tr. = transitive); n. = noun. . / Inflected forms

\/ For verbs these are the principal parts. (For nouns they would be Y the singular and plural, for modifiers the comparative and superlative forms.) As listed in this dictionary the principal parts, set in boldface, include the past preterite (woke), the past par-\ ticiple (waked), the present participle (waking), and the third person singular active indicative present (wakes). Alternate forms are given for the past and past participle, with the less common \ following the more common and labeled as rare or chiefly British \ & regional (that is, confined to the speakers of a particular geo-\ graphical area rather than common to all users of English). Definitions

These are divided into the senses of the verb and of the noun. The former, in turn, are distinguished for both the intransitive and transitive uses of the verb. Within each category the various meanings are ordered, in this dictionary, beginning with the most common or central. Different senses are marked by arabic numerals in boldface; subdivisions within a particular sense by lowercase letters in boldface. Where useful, brief examples of a sense are given in italics. Etymology

The etymology, set within brackets, traces the origin of the modern word. Foreign terms are italicized, and their meanings are in roman type without quotation marks. "Unattested" means that no actual record of a form exists, though the form

Usage: The verbs wake, waken, awake, and awaken are alike in meaning but differentiated in usage. Each has transitive and intransitive senses, but awake is used largely intransitively and waken transitively. In the passive voice, awaken and waken are the more frequent: / was awakened (or wakened) by his call. In figurative usage, awake and awaken are the more prevalent: He awoke to the danger; his suspicions were awakened. Wake is frequently used with up; the others do not take a preposition. The preferred past participle of wake is waked, not woke or woken: When I had waked him, I discovered that the danger was past. The preferred past participle of awake is awaked, not awoke: He had awaked several times earlier in the night._

wake (wak) n. 1. The visible track of turbulence left by something moving through the water: the wake of a ship. 2. The track or course left behind anything that has passed: "Every revolutionary law has naturally left in its wake defection, resentment, and counterre volutionary sentiment(C. Wright Mills). —in the wake of. 1. Following directly upon. 2. In the aftermath of; as a consequence of. [Probably Middle Low German wake, from Old Norse vok, a hole or crack in ice. See in

Informative introductions to special dictionaries and reference works in general can be found in The Basic Guide to Research Sources, edited by Robert O'Brien and Joanne Sod-erman (New American Library, 1975), Reference Readiness: A Manual for Librarians and Students, second edition (Linnet Books, 1977), or A Guide to Library Research Methods, by Thomas Mann (Oxford University Press, 1987).

Here we are interested only in one kind of special dictionary: the thesaurus or dictionary of synonyms. Syno-

may be inferred from other evidence. weg-2 refers to a list of Indo-European roots contained in an appendix following the word list. (Indo-European is the name given to the mother language of English and most other Western languages, as well as of many in the Near East and India. That language does not exist in any written record. However, linguists can reconstruct many of its words or word elements, collectively called roots, from evidence in languages descended from Indo-European.)


A discussion of how the word and its various forms are actually used by contemporary speakers. The discussion is illustrated by typical cases, printed in italics.

Main entry of wake2 Wake2, a homograph of wake1, is a different word with a different meaning. Quoted citation

Rather than a typical example, this is an actual employment of the word, attributed to a specific writer. It is an example of the kind of citation from which the dictionary maker works. Collecting hundreds or thousands of such specific examples of a word, he or she frames the definition. Idiom using the word.

nyms are words in the same language having much the same meaning. True, or identical, synonyms have exactly the same definition and usually are simply alternative names for the same object. In sailboats, for instance, mizzen and jigger signify the same sail and are true synonyms. Most synonyms, however, are less than exact. For example,pal and friendover-lap to a considerable degree, but are not exactly coextensive: any pal is a friend, but not any friend is a pal. In listing synonyms a thesaurus necessarily obscures this distinction between exact and near synonyms. To distinguish all shades of meaning would result in a vast work of many volumes, too expensive to buy and too cumbersome to use.

Roget's is probably the best known thesaurus. (The word comes from Greek and means "treasure.") It was first published in 1852 by Mark Peter Roget, an American physician and professor, and entitled A Thesaurus of English Words and Phrases, Classified and Arranged so as to Facilitate the Expression of Ideas and Assist in Literary Composition. Roget devised a system of grouping words in numbered and subdivided categories of ideas. Users searching for terms meaning, say, "friendship" could look under the appropriate category. To make his book usable from the other direction— that is, from word to also included an al phabetized index of words, each keyed to its category by the appropriate number. Early in the twentieth century C. S. Mawson simplified Roget's scheme. Neither Roget nor thesaurus is copyrighted, and a number of Roget's are currently available—some revisions of Roget's original work, others of Mawson's modification, and still others consisting of alphabetical listings without Roget's categories.

Besides the various Roget's, there are other thesauri on the market: The Random House Thesaurus (Random House); Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus (G. & C. Merriam Company); Webster's New World Thesaurus, edited by Charlton Laird (World Publishing Company); and Webster's II Thesaurus (Simon and Schuster). (Like Roget, the name Webster is not copyrighted and is used by competing companies.)

The limitations of most thesauri are revealed in the directions given in one edition of Roget:

Turning to No. 866 (the sense required) we read through the varied list of synonyms. . . and select the most appropriate expression. [Italics added]

That matter of selection is critical, and a thesaurus does not offer much help. For example, among the synonyms listed in one Roget under the category seclusion/exclusion are solitude, isolation, loneliness, and aloofness. They are merely listed as alternates with no distinctions drawn, but, except in a very loose sense, these words are not synonymous and may not be interchanged indiscriminately. .Solitude means physical apartness, out of the sight and sound of others, a condition not necessarily undesirable; in fact, solitude may be used with positive connotations, as in "She enjoys solitude." Loneliness, on the other hand, has a more subjective significance, relating to the feeling of being apart; it does not necessarily imply physical separation—one can be lonely in a crowd of Christmas it would never be given a positive sense. Isolation stresses physical separation, out of connection and communication with others, and is often used when that separation is not desired. Aloofness, finally, is self-chosen separation, a deliberate withdrawal from others, which may suggest a sense of superiority, though it does not have to.

To use these "synonyms" effectively you need to know considerably more about them than a thesaurus is likely to tell you. With many words—those in this example, for in-good abridged dictionary is more helpful. That is not to say that a thesaurus is a waste of money. Used wisely it can improve your working vocabulary. It may remind you of a word you have forgotten, or acquaint you with a new one. But before you employ that new word learn more about it.

A more useful source of synonyms is a work published by the G. & C. Merriam Company: Webster's Dictionary of Synonyms. It discusses meaning at greater length than does the typical thesaurus. For example, Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus uses about one inch of a column for solitude, the Dictionary of Synonyms spends more than seven inches, carefully distinguishing solitude from isolation, loneliness, and so on.


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