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
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
The German dictionary publisher Langenscheit has made available
an online, free
Spanish-English and English-Spanish dictionary which I can
The Spanish publisher Anaya has also made
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 ñ is a separate letter, and comes in the
dictionary after the n. This is true both if it begins a word
and if it comes in the middle of a word. It is pronounced ny, as
in mañana. The ñ has become a symbol of
the Spanish language, since only Spanish has an ñ. For
its pronunciation, click
is a list of words showing how the ñ is alphabetized:
- The ch is considered one letter; it follows c in the
dictionary, both at the beginning and in the middle of words. (In new
dictionaries, it will be dealt with as two letters, with no special
treatment.) It is pronounced as in English.
- charlar (Words beginning with ch come after those
beginning with c).
- The ll is also considered one letter; it follows l.
(In new dictionaries, it will be two letters.)
pronunciation of the ll.
- The written accent, used to indicate
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
- 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
- Variant meanings should be arranged in a dictionary in order of
frequency (from the most frequent to the least frequent).
Unfortunately, the least frequent meanings also occur with some
frequency. Be sure to look through all meanings.
- One good way to handle this problem is to look up the definitions
of the Spanish word in the English-Spanish section. Seeing
how the English words is translated into Spanish is often very
revealing about the meaning of Spanish terms.
- There are situations in which the only clue for choosing among
the variant meanings is which meaning "makes sense."
- 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.
- ¡Cómo no!
- desde luego
- hacer la vista gorda
- pasar por alto
- por si acaso
- 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.
- With verbs, one must sometimes distinguish between different
applications of the verb (transitive, intransitive, reflexive), and
choose the meaning that applies.
- 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
- or replace the specialized ending with a generic ending:
- besito (little kiss) > beso (kiss)
- pobrísimo (very poor) > pobre
- 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
- In dealing with a verb, identify and remove the verb ending,
then add the appropriate infinitive ending. For an overview of
this process, click
- 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
- I have provided an
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:
- alcalaíno (from Alcalá, a city near Madrid)
- catalán (from Cataluña, a region in Spain)
- mallorquín (from Mallorca)
- castrista (a supporter of Fidel Castro)
- aprista (Someone supporting the Peruvian political party PRA,
- el PRI (The Partido Revolucionario Institucional, the governing
party in Mexico. Someone supporting that party is a priísta.)
- cegetista (someone supporting the former political party CGT,
Congreso Nacional de Trabajo, whose letters are pronounced cegete)
- Adjectives derived from proper nouns typically are closer to
the Latin origin of the word than the place name itself:
- portorriqueño (Someone from Puerto Rico; puertorriqueño
is also used.)
- porteño (Someone from the puerto, Buenos
Aires in particular; note the Latin o instead of the Spanish
- neoyorquino (From Nueva York.)
- ecuatoriano (From Ecuador.)
- 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
- viejo means old, but el viejo is the
- bueno means good, but lo bueno is goodness,
good as an abstraction.
- Similarly, a noun can also be an adjective:
- El este is "the East," but este is also
the demonstrative adjective "this." One dictionary only
gives the noun meaning.
This page Copyright © 1998 Daniel Eisenberg. Please report errors
or omissions: firstname.lastname@example.org.