Explore Words!

Learning a language, especially a foreign one, involves lots of topics, ranging from modules such as grammar, speaking, vocabulary, pronunciation to themes such as agreeing, negation, commands, easily confused words, etc.

In this WWW era, the learning process has been simplified with the aid of thousands of websites and social media sites, offering contents in multifarious forms and shapes. Online tutors and writers speak of millions of topics to impart learners with the knowledge of the English language.

Much as the knowledge area is an ocean, there is one particular member in it functioning as the central point of interest: the word(s). Yes – the smallest constituent of any written or spoken or implied communication. Knowing how to explore words is knowing almost everything in the process of learning a language. It’s that simple! But it’s not that simple as it sounds to be! Read on to know more.

The first thing that is most likely to strike when you think of exploring words has to be lexicons or dictionaries. Your guess is right. This post is going to discuss the topic of using a dictionary – an online dictionary, in precise.

For English, there are a good many learners’ dictionaries available online, which serve with excellent features compared to the conventional hard copy counterparts. The most famous ones are from the Cambridge and Oxford publishers.

You might wonder what the real big deal is when it comes to using a dictionary. It is often thought that everyone is using one, words are being looked up for their spelling, the meanings are learnt, and the business with a dictionary is over.

But is it really over? No, the business with a dictionary is not done yet; there are many more things to do with a single dictionary entry, and every element of which will point towards one of the established branches of learning English such as grammar, pronunciation, collocation, parts of speech, verb patterns, object patterns, etc. along with the spelling and meaning. Let’s take an entry from the famous Cambridge Online Learners’ Dictionary (which I always use and strongly recommend) and see how the word ‘word’ is detailed.

The most effective looking-up of a dictionary entry highly depends on how many elements, and how well, you can spot in it. Here notice the two arrows: one pointing towards the spelling of the word; the other, the meaning.

Most of the users would generally eye only on these two very parts of the entry and conclude that what they wanted to look up have been looked up!

There’s not much to discuss the spelling except for the dialect variants such as British/American. This can include the base forms (‘colour’ BrE, and ‘color’ AmE) and the conjugated forms. Examples for the conjugated forms are seen in the past & past participle forms of ‘light’: ‘lit’ BrE; ‘lighted’ AmE. And ‘label’ as a verb, conjugated as ‘labelled’ in BrE; ‘labeled’ in AmE.

However, a dictionary is not merely supposed to distribute the meanings and spellings of words alone. Used effectively, an online dictionary can offer lots of extremely useful stuff such as the ones listed below.

1. Pronunciation: the IPA of each word is given (for both British and American accents) along with an audio clip linked with a speaker icon for each accent. This might not particularly help native speakers, but it definitely does non-natives.

Did you know? The words ‘quay’ and ‘key’ are pronounced the same /kiː/. Without referring to the phonetic representation of the words (or having heard them pronounced), it is almost impossible to guess the right pronunciation of ‘quay’. So, guesswork based on the written spelling of the word might not help pronounce words correctly on many occasions!

The IPA of a word is as important as the written spelling of its. Correct, or the closest to the standard, pronunciation will assist you to earn more points in the exams and will help you get noticed! However, reading the IPA is a bit of an advanced idea, and thus the audio clips associated with the pronunciation are a great help.

Truly speaking, you don’t have to master the International Phonetic Alphabet system and learn the pronunciation of each English word accordingly. Rather, you listen to the audios and compare the sound with its written IPA to form your own mental picture of the pronunciation. Repeat this. Then you will become familiar with the IPA system without even knowing the names of its alphabets. Most of the times, I tend to look for the IPA first than any other part of an entry.

It is often noticed that a majority of the non-native dictionary users do not even know what the piece of ‘gibberish’ sitting beside each entry does. Believe me, some have not even seen such a thing at all. It is simply because they don’t look for it.

Moving to something more technical in terms of pronunciation, readers should know that a word can have more than one IPA to denote the different functions it can possibly play within a sentence. The word ‘live’, for example, has /lɪv/ when used as a verb, and /laɪv/ when an adjective. Some naturally have more than one (a couple, usually) IPA for one single word class and accent, leaving you to choose the better version that fits your tongue! ‘Director’ is a fine example of it: /daɪˈrek.tər/ /dɪˈrek.tər/.  

Every non-native speaker dreams of sounding either British or American. It is the IPA that can only make it possible – so do try to take heed of the IPA and get noticed!

2. Meaning Indicator & Different Meanings: As you probably know already, a word class of an entry can have more than one meaning. Each meaning is descriptively labelled so that readers can easily distinguish the different meanings.

In our example, the noun ‘word’ has no less than 5 different meanings labelled LANGUAGE UNIT, TALKING, NEWS, PROMISE, ORDER. This is very well understood by most of the dictionary users because it is what they use the dictionary for – and there’s not really much for us to investigate here!

3. Labels (approving, disapproving, offensive): The beauty of this blog post lies within this topic and the one to succeed. The most significant and subtle usage differences are presented through different types of labels in the Cambridge online dictionary. The most advanced linguistic concepts like pragmatism can also be linked by virtue of labels in a dictionary, and the one we have chosen does it magnificently.

Labels such as ‘approving’ and ‘disapproving’ are extremely useful to understand subtle differences in terms of meanings and context of a word’s usage. The word ‘propaganda’, for example, is given the label ‘mainly disapproving’. This is amazing, isn’t it? By looking only at the definition of a word alone, one is usually inclined to use it in the context which they are in at the moment of reference. In other words, they are most likely to be misled without knowing the essential usage condition of the word.

Used in inappropriate contexts, words such as ‘propaganda’ can cause disasters. Luckily, such sensitive words are carefully studied and categorised by lexicographers and given suitable labels. The same is true with other labels as well. There’s an advanced point here to consider.

In English, there’s no such thing as ‘synonyms’ – at least, it’s what I believe. Every word is unique in some way; there’s an element of context uniqueness to think about each time a substitute word is picked out. This is made possible by means of such labels.

Also, labels such as ‘formal’ and ‘informal’ could play a major part in showcasing one’s level of English style or register. Other useful labels include ‘child’s word’ and ‘not standard’. The importance and what impact they could possibly make when used inappropriately are a complete no-brainer.

4. Collocation: If you want to sound as much natural as possible in English, become obsessed with collocation. As you might already know, collocation refers to word partners; natural combinations of words.

To know the correct partners of a word is the key to using it in the way it naturally is. Yes, to sound natural is what that matters. The level of your language usage is most vividly determined by the level of collocation you use. So, spot every possible collocating word of the dictionary entry you look up.

The question is where to look it up. Well, the best place to look for it in the Cambridge online dictionary is the examples section, where the collocating words are boldfaced. In our looking-up, the preposition for is boldfaced in the third example. What’s the word for bikini in French? And in the next example, the collocating verb find and the adjective right with the are given in bold to tell the readers that they are to be used along with the word ‘word’ in the same context. It’s sometimes difficult to find exactly the right word to express what you want to say.

Here the context is clearly seen without being directly said. Close association with a dictionary will slowly, yet surely, render this valuable experience.

One more point worth mentioning here is this: prepositional verbs (dependon, referto) can be easily noticed and studied without having to learn them separately. The preposition complementing the verb is in bold.

Apart from the boldfaced collocating words, many other useful ones can be derived in the ‘examples’ or ‘more examples’ section if you pay rapt attention. Cross out any words that are not on the list. This is one of the examples given. Here ‘cross out’ is an excellent spot, isn’t it?

Of note, the Cambridge dictionary has recently introduced a new feature to incorporate all of the collocations associated with a word through a dedicated section at the end of each entry. This is handy, but the ones spotted by us in the example section are the most important. One advantage of depending on such a technique is that it demands your effort and attention. Where there is effort, there is effectiveness.

Did you know? A noun can have several word-class indicators such as [C], [U], [S], [C or U], plural, noun [plural], [usually plural], [usually singular] and usage codes such as [+ sing/pl verb]. More on this to follow, folks!

5. Word Class (Parts of Speech): A handful of codes are used in the Cambridge dictionary to denote the different types of the word category and functions. A primary word class, otherwise known as parts of speech, can include as many types as it can take, and each one has its own code.

Nouns, for example, can be countable [C], uncountable [U], both/either [C or U], plural [plural] and so on. Similarly, for verbs, there are codes such as [T] to refer to transitive verbs, [I] to intransitive verbs and [I or T] to those that can be used either transitively or intransitively. (Click here for the complete list: https://dictionary.cambridge.org/help/codes.html)

Again, understanding the category which is usually associated with one of the established functions of the word is as important as what it means. It will enable the reader to determine which form of the word should be used to comply with the surrounding constituents of the sentence.

Take the first example sentence of the entry we are discussing:

The plural form ‘words’ is used in order to match the requirements triggered by the surrounding words ‘two thousand’. Pluralising was possible because the word had to be used in its countable sense [C].

As a noun, ‘word’ can be used as either countably or uncountably or a singular noun with a specific meaning. When used to mean ‘a piece of news’, it’s uncountable: We got word of their plan from a former colleague.

The countable counterpart ‘a word’ is incorrect. A great deal of grammar can easily be learnt by means of this analysis.

6. Additional Info on Word Class (after verb, not continuous): By virtue of some special word-class labels, we can learn a lot more grammar and avoid common mistakes. This includes ‘after verb’, ‘not continuous’, ‘usually passive’, ‘after noun’, ‘not gradable’, etc. Here are a couple of examples:

‘Afraid’ is used predicatively (i.e. after the verb) complementing the verb ‘be’/ ‘feel’.

‘Comprehend’ is labelled ‘not continuous’ so that the continuous forms of the verb are to be avoided. Being aware of these slightly advanced details of words can help learners master their language.

7. Fixed expressions or Phrases: Apart from the idioms and sayings (which are listed on a separate page), the most common fixed expressions of a word will be found on the same page. In our example, under the countable usage [C] of ‘word’, there is one: the F-word, C-word, etc.

And there are four of them under the next meaning which is coded [S]. One of them is given below, in which note that it is always plural:

The beauty of the Cambridge online dictionary is that every fixed expression has two entries: one in the page dedicated to the headword; the other, on its own page. This way, looking-up of every expression is made sure; you are not going to miss out a bit!

8. SMART Vocabulary: As expected, related words and phrases of each meaning of the word, within every word class of it, are listed under ‘SMART Vocabulary’ at the bottom. A word, or a single meaning of it, may have to be linked with more than one theme other than the one being looked up. To cover this, you can see a list of other topics related to the word down below as highlighted in the snippet:

As it’s highly recommended, build your vocabulary based on themes – not on the alphabetical order as how they are listed in a dictionary. Themes can help us remember the meanings and subtle differences of each word of a group immensely.

9. Examples (Verb Patterns/ Verb Complements): The examples presented in the dictionary have the habit of assisting us in many ways. One of them is to cater to the need of covering the topic ‘verb patterns’. That is, what forms the complement of a verb can take. The most common ones include [+ question word], [+ that clause], [+ to infinitive], [+ infinitive without to], [+ ing], [+ speech] and many more. For example, the verb, ‘say’.

So, examples are not just given to show how the actual headword of the dictionary entry is used in the sentence, but also to show how the complements are to be used.

10. English Profile Level of a Word:

You ever wondered what that tiny little code, mostly sitting beside the word-class code, does?

Well, these codes or labels refer to the English Profile level of a word or phrase. A word which has C1 is believed to be usually known by advanced learners of the English language. Our example ‘word’ is categorised ‘A1’, meaning that anyone interested in English is supposed to know. Here are the six codes used in the Cambridge dictionary:

A1 Beginner

A2 Elementary

B1 Intermediate

B2 Upper-Intermediate

C1 Advanced

C2 Proficiency

To sum up, a dictionary is not merely meant to distribute the meanings of words alone. The points discussed above and more are there to learn from a single dictionary entry. All of the details shared here are from my own experience; I haven’t followed any material, except for the technical terms, to write this post. Ordinary as I am, I have been able to spot these many points. So an expert can write in greater detail than what I have.

Use dictionaries with a broader goal and become rich in knowledge!

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