Lesson 1: Using the Dictionary

Using the dictionary is a fundamental skill which language courses and textbooks never teach beyond a simplified level. It is a key part of this course. Plan to refer to this lesson later.

Don't try to memorize everything that follows in this lesson. Except for alphabetical order, e will return to all of these points again.

Spanish-English dictionaries vary significantly in the supporting materials they include. Small ones include few or no idioms. They may index irregular verb forms together with other words, giving you the infinitive and identifying the form in question; they may tell you the infinitive, but not help you in understanding the form; they may provide tables of regular and irregular verb conjugations, with or without references to them from the text; or they may ignore verb forms altogether.

Some include detailed material on pronunciation, on the history of Spanish, on abbreviations, on proper names, or other such topics.

Here is a link to the dictionaries available at the NAU Bookstore in January 1998. Whichever dictionary you have or acquire, take the time to explore its different sections. This will surely pay off in the future.

I do not recommend software dictionaries. They are not only cumbersome to use (the computer must be on; you must be at the computer, they never (to my knowledge) contain the wealth of material a printed dictionary does.

The German dictionary publisher Langenscheit has made available an online, free Spanish-English and English-Spanish dictionary which I can recommend:

The Spanish publisher Anaya has also made a free Spanish-Spanish dictionary available online:

Other online dictionaries I have examined (1/98) are rudimentary and unsuitable for college work.

Alphabetical order. Letters English does not have.

The written accent, used to indicate word stress, has no effect on dictionary position.
Occasionally it distinguishes between different homonyms (este, éste, and esté), which may be entered as separate entries. This will be discussed later, and as such words come up.

Variant meanings of words. One major task is to distinguish among variant meanings. In English, spring has many meanings, and a foreigner looking in a dictionary would have to determine from the context which meaning applies in the sentence "Flowers bloom in the spring."
Idioms are groups of words which mean more than the sum of the meanings of the individual words making them up. Look them up under the most significant word of the group.
Parts of Speech. One must be sure one is looking at the right part of speech. For example, in English one would need to know if spring or head are nouns (the spring, the head) or verbs (to spring, to head). As we will discuss later, the role or function of a word of its sentence tells you what part of speech you are dealing with. Briefly, nouns are identified because they are modified by articles or adjectives, and fulfill noun functions (subject or object of verbs, object of preposition). Verbs have subjects and often objects, but are only modified by adverbs.
Limitations of Spanish dictionaries. Spanish-English dictionaries are, without exception, prepared for the use and convenience of Spanish speakers, not English speakers. This is understandable since there are many more Spanish speakers who study English than English speakers who study Spanish.
They follow the model of Spanish-Spanish dictionaries: only root or "master" forms of words are included. We will be discussing how to find the roots of words. Here is an overview of the steps we will deal with.
  • Remove a specialized ending, leaving the master form,
    • suavecito > suave (gentle)
    • burguesa > burgués (bourgeois)
    • naciones > nación (nation)
  • or replace the specialized ending with a generic ending:
    • besito (little kiss) > beso (kiss)
    • pobrísimo (very poor) > pobre (poor)
  • We will study the spelling changes which often take place at the point where the stem meets the ending.
    • veces > vez
    • lucecito > luz
    • barquillo > barco
    • riquísimo (very rich) > rico (rich)
  • In dealing with a verb, identify and remove the verb ending, then add the appropriate infinitive ending. For an overview of this process, click here.
    • If one looks up the word amo, for example, you will find a definition as a noun; el amo is "the master." The dictionary will not tell you that it is also the first person singular of the verb "amar," and means "I love." There are hundreds, possibly thousands of similar noun-verb homonyms. (No one has ever counted them.)
I have provided an alphabetical list of irregular verb stems (those in which the stem of certain verb forms differs from the stem of the infinitive), keyed to the infinitive each comes from.

Spanish dictionaries do not include proper nouns nor adjectives derived from them. Since the latter, in contrast with English, are not capitalized, they are easy to miss, and end up in frustration because the word is not in the dictionary. The solution is to be alert for proper name roots: madrileño is derived from Madrid; mejicano is derived from México. (Some dictionaries sometimes include separate tables of adjectives derived from place names.) Note the root in the following:
Adjectives derived from proper nouns typically are closer to the Latin origin of the word than the place name itself:
Spanish dictionaries often only indicate the root part of speech of a word. One needs to realize, for example, that a word found in the dictionary as an adjective can also be a noun, with a slightly different meaning:
Similarly, a noun can also be an adjective:

Go on to Assignment on Lesson 1.

This page Copyright © 1998 Daniel Eisenberg. Please report errors or omissions: daniel.eisenberg@bigfoot.com. ¡Mil gracias!