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What is a Dictionary?

Mary Elizabeth
Updated May 23, 2024
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A dictionary is a reference book that focuses on defining words and phrases, including multiple meanings. The most frequently used type is a language dictionary that includes the majority of frequently used words in a language. These books are made for different types of users: scholars, office workers, schools, and second language learners.

Adult English language dictionaries characteristically include hyphenation information, pronunciation guides, part of speech, alternate spellings, etymological information, sample sentences, usage notes, and sometimes synonyms. Cross-references may be used for less-used forms, such as British variations along side American English, and charts and illustrations may help amplify the definitions.

There are many competing dictionaries put out by different companies. Not only do they have different forms — paperback, hardbound, and online editions — but they differ in other ways. Each company, for example, uses its own version of phonetic respelling based on the research done by its experts. One company might use the International Phonetic Alphabet (IPA), while others have proprietary pronunciation symbols, and still others use the letters of the alphabet in a special way to indicate pronunciation.

Other differences show up in other features. Many dictionaries include their experts' guidance on grammar, usage, and the history of the English language. Definitions differ slightly, and sample sentences may be the work of the editorial staff or taken from real-world usage, perhaps the first known written use, when possible.

There are other types of language reference books besides the standard English dictionary. There are those for the different dialects of English, ones for other languages, and bilingual dictionaries that help users translate from one language to another. There are those of living languages and others of languages that are preserved only in fragments of ancient manuscript. Still others address specialized areas of language use, such as idioms or political slang.

Variations on this type of book provide some ingenious new types of reference works. Multi-function reference books may combine the properties of a dictionary and a thesaurus. Books that are organized thematically assist the user when he doesn’t know exactly what word he wants. Misspelling dictionaries have entries for the common misspellings of words so that the user can find words even when he doesn’t know how to spell them correctly.

Other reference books address specialty areas, like those that focus on biography and geography. Lacking the full articles of an encyclopedia, they give users a quick introduction to the subject area.

Language & Humanities is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary Elizabeth
By Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to writing articles on art, literature, and music for Language & Humanities, Mary works as a teacher, composer, and author who has written books, study guides, and teaching materials. Mary has also created music composition content for Sibelius Software. She earned her B.A. from University of Chicago's writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont.
Discussion Comments
By LisaLou — On Apr 12, 2012

@Mykol - It is very useful to have a dictionary translator like that on your phone. It is so much more convenient than carrying a book around with you everywhere you go.

One of the things I really like about using an online dictionary is all of the extra information many sites give you.

Not only do they give you the spelling and meaning of the word, but you can learn the origin and history and also have quick access to thesaurus information.

Depending on the reason you need a dictionary, this can save a lot of time having all of this information on one page.

By Mykol — On Apr 11, 2012

When I took my first trip to Mexico, I carried a paperback English and Spanish dictionary with me. There were many times this was useful when I wanted to know the meaning of something or how to pronounce something correctly.

Many people could speak and understand some English, but I felt better having this dictionary handy and found that I used it quite often.

Today if I was traveling to a country where they spoke a foreign language I would just download an app on my phone to help me with word translation.

By bagley79 — On Apr 10, 2012

@turkay1 - I have an old hard-cover dictionary that was given to me when I graduated from high school many years ago. A local bank gave one of these to the top 5 graduating seniors.

My husband and I enjoy working on puzzles in the newspaper on the weekend, and a few years ago I found that dictionary and keep it handy.

We find ourselves using this reference many times to look up the spelling or meaning of a word. When I am working at my computer I always use a dictionary online, but still have a use for that old hard-cover.

It is interesting though how many new words are not included in that old dictionary that are included in the newer ones.

By ysmina — On Apr 10, 2012

@anon31001-- And I need one in Arabic!

I'm going to the Middle East for a program this summer and wanted to take an Arabic-English dictionary with me. I can't seem to find the Arabic dictionary I'm looking for because most of them are printed in the Arabic alphabet. But I don't know the Arabic alphabet. I need the Arabic words transliterated in the Roman alphabet so that I can read it.

I think this is the biggest issue when it comes to translation dictionaries. If the language is written in a different alphabet and you don't know that alphabet, you can't use it.

Urdu uses a different alphabet than the Roman alphabet right? Do you have the same problem?

By candyquilt — On Apr 10, 2012

Does anyone even use a hard-cover dictionary anymore?

I don't even have any at home. I'm always using an online dictionary now. It's a lot easier because you don't have to search for a word by page and alphabetic order. You just put in the word and the definition comes up.

I remember when I was in school, we used to have these exercises where we tried to look up words in a dictionary. The ones who did it the fastest would get extra points. I was always so slow! I'm so glad we have online dictionaries now.

By discographer — On Apr 09, 2012

@anon121555-- A dictionary gives the meanings of words, whereas an encyclopedia gives information on various subjects. An encyclopedia can include definitions, but a dictionary will usually not include anything aside from definitions. Some dictionaries do provide examples of how each word is used in a sentence, but not all of them.

@anon75096-- I think the biggest advantage of a dictionary is that it lets me express myself better.

I've been studying the dictionary every summer when schools are out. I have learned so many new words! Words I didn't even know existed.

I've noticed that since I've expanded my word knowledge, it's a lot easier to express my emotions and thoughts. I used to get stuck before when I talked to people. Sometimes I just couldn't find the right word. Now I almost always know the word I'm looking for.

By anon121555 — On Oct 25, 2010

what is the difference between a dictionary and an encyclopedia?

By anon75096 — On Apr 05, 2010

I need to know the advantages of a dictionary.

By anon61337 — On Jan 19, 2010

Dictionaries are cool!

By anon31001 — On Apr 28, 2009

I need one in Urdu.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Passionate about reading, writing, and research, Mary Elizabeth is dedicated to correcting misinformation on the...
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