About your dictionary
At this point in your Spanish studies you need a very good
Spanish-English/English-Spanish dictionary, and you need to learn how to
use it well. Here is some information which should be of help as you look
for and start using such a reference tool.
Organization of the individual entries: In any good dictionary, when
a given word has numerous possible meanings, these possibilities are various
meanings of a given word are separated into groups. Knowing how your dictionary
organizes them can save you work and time. Some ways in which possible meanings
Part of speech. In both Spanish and English, a
group of letters may be two different words, or two different parts of speech.
Determine how your dictionary handles these cases. For example, start
can be both a noun (at the start of the race ... vs. the
race will start ...). Your Spanish sentence may turn
out to be gibberish if you insert the wrong part of speech in it. How does
your dictionary tell you this information? Typically,the entry for
start in your dictionary will have: a section for nouns and another
section for verbs, or perhaps several individual sections depending on whether
you are looking for a transitive or intransitive verb [which will be discussed
Learn to recognize the abbreviations your dictionary uses for the various
parts of speech. Hopefully they will be the same for both the English-to-Spanish
and the Spanish-to-English halves of your dictionary; check to see. Some
adj for adjectives (easy, fácil;
marvellous, maravilloso). [More
on adjectives below.]
adv for adverbs (quickly, rápidamente;
conj for conjunctions (pero, but; when,
interj for interjections (ugh, uf; crash,
n for nouns (window, ventana; dictionary,
diccionario). [More on nouns below.]
prep for prepositions (with, con; behind,
pron for pronouns (she, ella; I, yo).
v for verbs (speak, hablar; live, vivir).
[More on verbs below.]
[If you don't understand the difference between the various parts
of speech, learn them now; you might start with the
handout Parts of Speech.]
Similarity of meanings. Widely different types of meanings may be
indicated by the use of numbers (1, 2, 3, ...) or letters (a, b, c, ...).
Within a certain category punctuation is also important; words which are
very close in meaning might be separated by a comma, whereas a semicolon
may indicate the start of a new, somewhat different set of meanings.
Field/context. Better dictionaries frequently offer additional information
to help you identify the proper word, giving the situation in which it might
be applied. Sometimes words will be grouped by field, such as automotive,
general, medical, military, politics, sports, technical, etc.; other times
these labels and other helps will given immediately before or after individual
expressions in other types of listings.
Sample. Look at the following entry to see how it gives the various
meanings; determine which words would be appropriate for: 1) a joke
I heard last night; 2) don't joke with me; 3) they played
a joke on me; [Note: This was taken from a Harper Collins
unabridged edition, but I have taken taken out some material including all
the examples, reducing the entry by almost two thirds.]
joke 1 n (hoax etc) broma
f, burla f; (witticism, story) chiste m;
(person) hazmerreír m.
2 vi bromear; hablar en broma; (tell
~s) contar chistes.
More on verbs. Verbs are quite problematic for
beginning and intermediate students of language. First of all, you won't
find a dictionary, even an unabridged one, that offers all the verb forms
for each Spanish verb. For example, you will almost certainly not find forms
such as hechizo, hechice, hechizaste,
hechizarán or hechizaran; at this point you should be
able to recognize that these are all forms of the verb hechizar, and
you must look up that infinitive form hechizar to try to determine
find out what is the basic meaning. Better dictionaries will list certain
irregular forms such as: quepo (the present indicative yo-form
of caber, but not the subjunctive forms quepas, etc.) and
puse (the preterit yo-form poner, but not the other
preterit or subjunctive forms based on the preterit such as pusieron,
pusieras). [Comment: If your dictionary does not list the forms
quepo and puse, you should probably buy one that does.]
Despite this limitation, your dictionary should be able to give you a great
deal of useful information:
Whether the verb is used transitively,
intransitively, and/or reflexively. In English you may not even take
into consideration characteristics such as these when choosing a verb, but
in Spanish it can be crucial:
Transitive verb (frequently used abbreviation: vt for verbo
transitivo). This means that the verb can and ordinarily must
take a direct object. For example, numerous verbs like bañar,
afeitar, maquillar, and mover are ordinarily used
transitively: I can shave (afeitar) a peach perhaps, or a man in my
barber's chair, or myself, but ordinarily I need to shave something
or somebody to use the verb afeitar.
Intransitive verb (frequently abbreviated vi for verbo
intransitivo). Intransitive verbs, or verbs used intransitively, don't
take a direct object. For example chocar can mean to hit, strike,
for example with a car, but is used intransitively with this meaning. One
can't simply translate literally The car hit the building;
you would have to use something like El coche chocó con
Reflexive verb (frequently abbreviated vr, for verbo
reflexivo). The vast majority of verbs listed as vr are technically
not reflexive verbs, but verbs which may be used reflexively. Some change
meaning, or at least seem to do so, when used in this way; for example
establecer means to establish, but when used reflexively
(establecerse), it can mean to settle [We settled
in Fort Wayne], or start a business. Another common usage was
referred to in section A above, namely allowing a transitive verb to be used
in an intransitive way. Me afeité = I shaved [myself].
Note that sometimes, but not always, this transitive/intransitive/reflexive
information is given in the English-to-Spanish half of your dictionary. If
it is not given for each verb in the Spanish-to-English half, your dictionary
is not suitable for much more than serving as a possible emergency vocabulary
tool stored in the bottom of your backpack for when you don't have access
to a real dictionary.
Conjugation info. Any worthwhile dictionary
will give you specific information on creating all normal forms for every
verb listed. Instead of giving every form of every verb, however, it normally
uses a keyed system. In the Spanish-to-English side of the dictionary,
immediately after the main listing for the verb, there is a key or code,
most frequently given in brackets and consisting of a number (1, 2, or 3)
plus a letter, for example, [1a] or [3h]. The number refers
to the conjugation: 1 = first conjugation, or -ar verbs;
2 = second conjugation, or -er verbs; 3 = third conjugation,
or -ir verbs. The letter which follows indicates the class; the letter
a normally indicates that it is a regular verb. If any other letter
appears, you should consult the special section usually in the back
of your dictionary which lists the peculiarities of a sample verb in
that class. If you're fuzzy on the forms for a given tense, there should
be a listing of all forms for a sample verb for each conjugation either under
the sections [1a], [2a], [3a], or in a table somewhere.
More on nouns.
Gender. The Spanish-to-English half of your dictionary will indicate
whether a given noun in Spanish is masculine (libro, hombre),
feminine (mesa, mujer), or both masculine and feminine. This
last type is sometimes referred to with the rather confusing term
common, in the sense that the one single form is common to both genders.
Most nouns ending in -ista are this type: un artista moderno
= a modern (male) artist; una artista moderna = a modern
(female) artist. Your dictionary will probably use the abbreviations
m, f, and m/f or mf, often combined with n
(for noun), for example:
chiste nm, in the Spanish-to-English half, indicating first
that is is a noun and second that it is masculine.
chiste m, in the English-to-Spanish half, under the listing
for joke, indicating that the word is masculine; the abbreviation
n is not needed since joke was specified as a noun.
mano nf, a feminine noun (despite the -o ending).
industrialista nm/f, a noun that may either be masculine or
Better dictionaries will also list this information in the English-to-Spanish
half, to save you from having to look up the information in the
Plural. Some Spanish nouns have unusual or at least unexpected,
for the beginning or intermediate student forms in the plural, normally
abbreviated as pl. Even good dictionaries are poor in giving plural
forms, but will at least give information on forms which change the place
of stress: carácter nm, pl caracteres;
régimen nm, pl regímenes.
More on adjectives. That's precisely the
problem: in most dictionaries there is almost no information on adjectives
except for the meaning. An adjective will be listed in its masculine singular
form, for example lindo, triste, or hablador; information
often will not be given on the feminine and plural forms. At this
point in your studies you will presumably know that lindo has three
other forms (linda, lindos, lindas), and that
triste has a plural form (tristes); you may not know and
your dictionary most likely will not tell you that the other forms
for hablador are: habladora, habladores,
habladoras. [Perhaps the the handout on
Adjectives will be of help.]
Other abbreviations and indicators. We already discussed some
abbreviations dealing with parts of speech in general
and the special ones for verbs and
nouns. The goal of such abbreviations is of course to
give much more information in a limited amount of space. A few more abbreviations
you should be aware of include:
or ~ or some similar device for repeating the main word
or expression for the listing. For example: The entry for
trivialidades might contain: decir es to talk trivially
[= decir trivialidades].
and or something similar might be used to indicate that
an expression is old-fashioned (one symbol) or obsolete (two such symbols).
* or ** or ***. A good dictionary should inform you
if a particular expression is colloquial, impolite, or the equivalent of
what we refer to as a four-letter word in English. One device
for doing this is to use a series of asterisks or some other character to
suggest the degree of grossness of the term involved.
algn, sb and sth are frequently used for alguien
(somebody, someone), somebody and something:
for example, deberle algo a algn [deberle algo a alguien] =
to owe sb sth [to owe somebody something].
Other resources. All dictionaries have limitations, but they remain
an indispensable tool for foreign language work. Take some time to look at
the many resources your dictionary offer. It may well offer:
A detailed explanation of how it presents information to you.
A list of abbreviations it uses.
Abbreviations used in the Spanish language.
Mini-explanations of many aspects of both English and Spanish grammar.
Tips on writing in English and Spanish.
Samples of various types of writing styles (e.g., letters, invitations,
Numbers, weights and measures, telling the time and date.
Information on the various classes of Spanish verbs, and to which each Spanish
verb entry is keyed (discussed above, but this
USE BOTH HALVES OF THE DICTIONARY! If you look up a
word/expression in the English-Spanish part and there are several possibilities
given, check them out in the Spanish-English part to find the best one.
Buy the best Spanish-English/English-Spanish dictionary you can afford,
preferably one that is unabridged. Unabridged does
not mean that it is complete or that it will have all the expressions
you want to look up, but it should have more information than any of the
other dictionaries offered by that same publisher.
Other dictionaries are available for you to consult. The library (and perhaps
the departmental office, if you are with your teacher and/or treat the
secretaries with the respect they deserve) will have some technical dictionaries.
I have other types which may be of use, including an English/Spanish visual
dictionary and Spanish-Spanish dictionaries, one of which is illustrated.