17 ways to use a dictionary
There are so many things you can do with a dictionary - thick book or online. And you can't enjoy writing without one.
1. Clear up confusions
Which is which of compliment and complement? Any dictionary will tell you, the one with the ‘e' means complete and the other one means making polite comments.
2. Fine distinctions
Is there are a difference between continuous and continual? What does nice actually mean?
3. Have fun
Fin wonderful words like curmudgeonly or discombobulate, create words and then check them in the dictionary to make sure they don't exist yet. Lewis Carroll invented ‘chortle' as a blend of chuckle and snort. Now it is a recognised dictionary word. Over to you! I like ‘swiggle' - what does it suggest to you?
4. History of words
Did you know that ‘nice' originally meant precise? A nice fit would have been a suit cut to perfection. Now its meaning is so imprecise that it is hard to describe: pleasant, enjoyable, friendly...
5. Hyphenate or not?
You will find alternatives for lots of words, for example: help-desk or helpdesk. Some words you might expect to be hyphenated never are, such as trademark. There's no way of knowing, just look it up.
6. Keep door open
If your door shuts by itself and you don't want it to, put a dictionary on the floor. Effective until you need to look a word up... maybe you should invest in one of those little rubber wedge things.
7. Learn new words
Sign up for the word of the day on dictionary.com
If you look for an online dictionary on Google, make sure it is a UK one. Anything with the word ‘Webster' anywhere near it will definitely be US. You will probably be sucked one way or another into one of these two: dictionary.reference.com which is associated with ask.com and plastered with ads and links to other ask sites 2. dictionary.alot.com which you have to sign up for. The best freely accessible and definitely UK one I have found is www.askoxford.com which appears to have nothing to do with ask.com. The definitions are clear and there are ‘usage notes' which point out common confusions and similar words. Important note: when you search for a word, remember to select ‘dictionary' rather than the default which is ‘entire askoxford site'.
9. Press flowers
The ‘Shorter Oxford Dictionary' is best for this. 1. It is enormous and 2. There are much better dictionaries for looking stuff up in.
9. Raise height of projector
Only if it needs a big hoist. A stack of magazines is easier to fine-tune.
10. Rescue a word
This is so much fun. What words do you miss? What do you not hear enough any more? Leaf through a dictionary for ideas.
11. Show off
Did you know that discrete means separate, distinct as in discrete steps rather than a continuous slide? Use it tomorrow and amaze your friends.
12. Spare key concealment
This is a terrible thing to do to a book - so only consider it if you have an inferior dictionary inherited from your grandmother. Cut a hole in a several consecutive pages and hide the key. Then a burglar won't find it - but will you?
Are you sure how to spell dependent, or is it dependant? Or are there two different words? And is 'supersede' really spelt like that?
14. Throw at cat
If the cat starts scratching the carpet while you are on the phone to an esteemed customer. You will always, of course, have your dictionary close to hand after all. Throw to miss if you value your cat.
15. Understand stuff
When you read the Economist, or stretch your mind by embarking on a serious biography, you will encounter words you don't know. Look them up! Remember them! I recently found ‘reticulate' - meaning 'in the form of a network'. Why that is not commonly used, I wonder. After all ‘network' is much overused is it not?
16. US/UK differences
Is it true that ‘capitalize' is the US version of ‘capitalise'? I think you may be surprised that most UK dictionaries accept either. In other words, the ...ise/...ize thing is all a matter of preference. For rulings on individual words, the Economist style guide is useful.
17. Win arguments
Is there such a word as ‘unprecise' or do you have to say ‘imprecise'? Why? We all know what ‘unprecise' means don't we?