How to Use Your Dictionary  

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 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 are grouped:

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 and a verb. 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 several individual sections depending on whether you are looking for a transitive or intransitive verb.

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 typical abbreviations:

    adj - adjectives (easy, fácil; marvellous, maravilloso).
    adv - adverbs (quickly, rápidamente; never, nunca).
    conj - conjunctions (pero, but; when, cuando)
    interj - interjections (ugh, uf; crash, cataplum).
    n - n ouns (window, ventana; dictionary, diccionario).
    prep - prepositions (with, con; behind, detrás de).
    pron - pronouns (she, ella; I, yo).
    v - verbs (speak, hablar; live, vivir).

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 help will be 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;


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 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 el edificio.

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 is 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. 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 feminine.

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 Spanish-to-English half.

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.

Other abbreviations and indicators. The goal of such abbreviations is 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:

  • 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.
  • Pronunciation.
  • 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, announcements).
  • 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

Closing tips

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” should have more information than any of the other dictionaries offered by that same publisher.

Exercise - Using Your Dictionary

Popular Phrase: hice conjugation | Reflexive Verbs | Conjugated Verb: atrasarse - lag [ click for full conjugation ]