buy a dictionary
November 3, 2012

Don’t Just Sound Smart: Buy a Dictionary

As I have noted in other posts, I am an English professor. I teach writing and literature. In my experiences with students, I have learned that very few actually know how to use the dictionary and understand its importance. This is also true for the thesaurus. I have often considered having a dictionary and thesaurus as my sole textbook for writing classes because these two are uber important in academics and the world beyond. So, here I am writing to the redOrbit crowd to show why we need dictionaries and thesauruses in education.


So, to begin with, let’s look at the dictionary. Most people know that the dictionary is useful primarily for learning the definitions of new words. This broadens our vocabularies as well as our knowledge. We learn what words mean. We can also learn how to use them because dictionaries, or at least good dictionaries, further provide the part of speech that each word is. If it is a word that can be used as multiple parts of speech, a dictionary provides the definition and uses of each possibility.

Moreover, a good dictionary will also provide example sentences to show readers how to use the word in a sentence, and it will do this for each part of speech the word fits. This helps learners to understand how to use words not just what a word means. Having a large denotative vocabulary is useless if one does not actually know how to use the word.

A third benefit of the dictionary is for spelling. If one does not know exactly how to spell a word, then she can go to the dictionary for definition and spelling. Affect and effect are commonly misused words primarily because of their spelling. If one would simply look up the definition of affect, she would see that affect is a verb thus must be used only as a verb. A simple spelling mistake can be fixed by using the dictionary.

Furthermore, dictionaries show us whether a word is one word, hyphenated, or two words, so for those words we struggle with, we have a solution in a good dictionary. Similarly, dictionaries show us how to pronounce these words. They even provide a pronunciation table so that readers can learn what the symbols mean and how to read them to understand how to say a word.

Many good dictionaries exist in the world. I am a particular fan and proponent of the Oxford English Dictionary because it also provides the etymology of defined words. This provides readers with a context and greater understanding of the words.


The thesaurus is a great companion to the dictionary. Where a dictionary provides definition, a thesaurus provides synonyms and antonyms. The thesaurus offers options. It shows what words can be used similarly as well as those opposites. It further helps to broaden one’s vocabulary and knowledge of language.

One word of advice, though. The thesaurus lists those words with similar meanings but that does not mean that a writer can just supplant one word in the list with another. Sometimes the words are synonyms; however, that does not mean they are identical. Here again, the dictionary comes to the rescue. By simply looking up the definitions, one learns the part of speech and uses. This is invaluable in writing and speaking.

There are worse books out there to spend time reading and learning from than dictionaries and thesauruses. Really, I would venture to challenge all people to read the dictionary. Only good things can come from this exposure.

Image Credit: bioraven/Shutterstock

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Rayshell E. Clapper is an Associate Professor of English at a rural college in Oklahoma where she teaches Creative Writing, Literature, and Composition classes. She has presented her original fiction and non-fiction at several conferences and events including: Scissortail Creative Writing Festival, Howlers and Yawpers Creativity Symposium, Southwest/Texas Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association Regional Conference, and Pop Culture Association/American Culture Association National Conference. Her publications include Cybersoleil Journal, Sugar Mule Literary Magazine, Red Dirt Anthology, Originals, and Oklahoma English Journal. Beyond her written works, she successfully created a writer's group in rural Oklahoma to support burgeoning writers. The written word is her passion, and all she experiences inspires that passion. She hopes to help inspire others through her words.

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