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Production Dic.
Thesauruses etc.
Pictorial dictionaries


Reception Dic.


Special Dic.




This page outlines the features you can expect from a good dictionary.

We tell three types of dictionaries: Production dictionaries, Reception dictionaries, and Special dictionaries.

  • Production dictionaries are useful whenever you try to express yourself (so you have the concept), and need to know how to say it in a foreign language.

  • Reception dictionaries are genuine "lookup" dictionaries. They go from the target language to a definition or a translation in your own language.

  • Special dictionaries serve specific purposes such as the coverage of technical languages and dialects.

See also
Online dictionaries and Software-based dictionaries.

Note: L1 stands for the student's mother tongue, and L2 for her/his foreign language.


Production dictionaries

        This section is about word finding. Suppose you have an idea and want to express it in a foreign language...
  1. Meaning
  Translation from L1 into L2, definitions, style notes, etc. (like in Reception Dictionaries > Meanings).
  2. Collocations

Collocations, sentences translated from L1 into L2, etc. (like in Reception dictionaries > Collocations ).

On a very low level, tourist or conversation guides or phrase books (German Sprachführer) provide help in everyday situations: introducing, phone calls, asking for directions. Collections of business letters have also been published.

  3. Thesauruses etc.
  Synonyms, antonyms, words with similar meanings, analogs -- even the 'whole' lexical field is shown for each one of the main entries. Such a dictionary is often called a  thesaurus.

Some of these dictionaries are mere lists, which are helpful only in situations when you have something 'on the tip of your tongue'. Other dictionaries include notes on context and style. Further, there are
contrastive thesauruses, which explain the usage differences between semantically similar words. They are far more useful than bilingual dictionaries for the producing student.

alphabetically sorted synonym dictionaries, a careful choice of  hypernyms  is very important for easy location of words. (Hypernyms are main entries for which other words are particular cases, e.g. plant as per tree, tree as per oak, etc. ) There is a risk that the words be too dispersed.
The words in this kind of reference book can also be classified
by subject.
  3.1 Regular
  Thesauruses should include indications of context along with the words.
  3.2 Hierarchical

Sometimes called "thematic dictionaries", in them the words are sorted following a hierarchy. They are very useful when you are searching for an abstract term related to a given word but not being 'on the same level'. To seek words describing objects, you might find picture dictionaries more useful.

E.g., you might want to find a meronym, which is a word describing a part of its holonym (e.g. a branch of a tree).

animals > mammals > horseADJECTIVES equestrian; PLACES riding-ground; PEOPLE trooper (police);

Some bilingual 'thematic dictionaries' (containing up to approx. 4,000 entries), are published with names such as "basic vocabulary" (German Grundwortschatz or Lernwortschatz), intended for beginners.

  3.3 Ideological dictionaries
  Ideological dictionaries, or dictionaries of analogs or associations, unlike thematic dictionaries, these dictionaries are not based on an artificial taxonomy that stems from the author's personal view of the world, but on mental associations that are assumed to be common to all speakers in a certain community. The words appearing together need not come from the same field, but they may sometimes be related in a rather 'divergent' sense.

A good thematic or ideological dictionariy includes an alphabetical index of all keywords, which
refers to the list of
headwords or main entries of the dictionary.

In English, several publishing houses release dictionaries of this kind with the title "Roget’s thesaurus". For French Boissière's, for Spanish Casares are reknowned.
  3.4 Contrastive thesauruses
  A contrastive thesaurus is a monolingual dictionary that groups synonyms and shows the differences between them. It is useful for learners since they need to distinguish between synonyms in the target language, especially regarding the collocations (use) of each of them.

A good example for this kind of dictionary is Longman's Language Activator.

On the other hand, a bilingual thesaurus can be very useful for beginners who are not able to use a monolingual thesaurus in the target language.
  4. Pictorial dictionaries
  This kind of dictionary shows pictures sorted by subject. It is very useful as a complement to an ideological dictionary, to look up non-abstract words.

The Oxford-Duden series are bilingual and contain some 25000 entries.


        Suppose you have a foreign word and want to know what it means or how to use it.

Then, you
look it up in a foreign language dictionary. That is what this section is about.
  1. Meanings
  1.1 Translation from L2 to L1
  There is no such thing as a one-to-one correspondence between the words of one language and another. If your dictionary includes a cue (in brackets) before each translation, it will spare you plenty of checking work.

In some cases a translation is not enough, and a definition or comment is necessary. This holds especially for languages that come from mutually distant cultures. E.g., our classification into parts of speech (adjectives, nouns, etc.) is not very useful for Chinese.
  1.2 Definitions and contrasting
  Certain books, often titled Learner’s dictionary (German Lernwörterbuch), use L2 definitions, making use of a limited 'basic' vocabulary, sometimes followed by translations. This provides the learner with exposure to the target language.

As a complement to regular dictionaries, dictionaries 'of usage', 'of difficulties', or 'of doubts' (e.g. Fowler’s), explain hard points such as paronyms. These dictionaries are usually monolingual.

Dictionaries of 'false cognates' or 'false friends' have to be used carefully. It is better to learn foreign words matched to their real meaning, instead of suggesting you mistakes.
  2. Collocations
  2.1 Collocation

Any good mid-size dictionary should comply with this feature. So-called valences of a word are crucial to learn how to use it properly. For instance, you need to know which kind of word you may use as a direct object for a verb; if the language is flected (declension), you need to know which case (e.g. accusative) governs a given preposition or verb, etc.

We propose the following notation for this purpose:

- After a verb: « » subject; < > direct object;
- For an adjective: < > the noun it affects; [ ] the matching verb;
- For an adverb: < > the verb it affects;
- ( ) other categories (e.g. complement) and explanations.
- particles making an exception could be written in italics or small capitals.

pretty <woman, not man>
old [grow]

  2.2 Frequent
  A native knows which words go well together, and which do not. But a foreign language student is likely to make constructions that can be understood but do not 'sound artificial'. For this reason, dictionaries listing typical collocations are useful, especially for non-beginners. By the way, they are also published with names such as 'context dictionary' or 'dictionary of combinations'.

Note also that frequent words sometimes have a more complex constellation of collocations than technical words.
  2.3 Sample

Set phrases or idioms and 'expressions imagées' fit in this category.
They are especially useful when irregular collocations are in use. The following example is in Spanish:

caballo Se montó en el caballo. But: Estuvo montando a caballo toda la tarde.

  2.4 Idioms

Set phrases or idioms and 'expressions imagées' fit in this category.
The following example is from an ideal monolingual Spanish dictionary:

montar montar a pelo montar (en un animal) sin montura ni sudadero
caballo IDI a mata ~ at breakneck speed; all of a sudden; ~ de batalla fig central point / issue in a dispute; main obstacle in an issue; ~ de fuerza / de vapor horse-power

  2.5 Proverbs
  Proverbs, refrains, and even commercial slogans fit in this category.
  2.6 Quotations

They are usually of literary or historical origin.

Berlin "Ich bin ein Berliner" (I am a Berliner), J. F. Kennedy in Berlin in 1962.
Veni, vidi, vici [I came, I saw, I conquered], attributed to Julius Caesar before the Roman Senate in 47 B.C., explaining his victory over Farnaces, king of Pontus.

  3. Register

Social and other usage constraints should be mentioned in a dictionary. The following examples come from an ideal Spanish dictionary.

  poetic // literary // formal // normal // colloquial // slangy // vulgar

  affected // onomatopoeic // baby talk // children's language // juvenile language // slang

mar la mar poet // pop
mierda ¡mierda! rude shit! Amer rude, Brit pop

- Fashion:
  dated // infrequent

repámpanos ¡repámpanos! dated good heavens!

- Intentions:
  flattery // humorous // ironic // derogatory

gallito [hombre joven] Spain derog  young boaster

- Commonly misused words and alternatives proposed by authorized speakers:

ir *iros* imper Spain incorrect = idos
los Se *los* [lo] dije (a ustedes) LatAmer incorrect  I told you
bloc the Real Academia Española recommends -> bloque
puénting Spain created by pollution. Recommended: -> puentismo or bungee-jumping

- Geographical registers:

durazno LatAmer peach; Spain: -> melocotón
tío [-a] Spain fam guy m/f fam Amer, m fam Brit

There are specialized dictionaries foreign words, neologisms, etc.

  4. Pronunciation
  At least those words making an exception to the rule should be transcribed. Transcription should make use of the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet). Other systems do not make it easy to contrast sounds of different languages.
  5. Morphology

Spelling differences between variants of a language (e.g. American an British English, European and Brazilian Portuguese, simplified and traditional Chinese) have to be taken into account. References to conjugation and declension tables and a notice on irregular forms must appear also.

The following notation might be useful for this purpose: purely grammatical can be written in square brackets [ ], and you could use ( ) for semantical indications.

lie (lying; lied; lied) to tell a lie;
(lying; lay; lain) to stay in horizontal position;

There are specialized dictionaries for derivation and composition.

  6. Etymology

(That is the origin of a word.) In certain cases (French), etymological indications are especially useful to ease memory print:

aujourd’hui adv today — ETYM au+jour+de+hui



        Apart from those listed here, you may find dictionaries for more language-related specific purposes, e.g. dictionaries of English phrasal verbs, of new words (neologisms), foreign words (German Fremdwörterbuch).

See also the sections on
idioms, proverbs, and quotations.
  1. Technical
  Most include mere L2 -> L1 translations, but in this case definitions are very useful.
  2. Dialectal
  This group includes slang dictionaries and those featuring local variants of a given language.
  3. Encyclopedias
  The largest Encyclopedia in the world is probably the Encyclopaedia Britannica.
  4. Abbreviations

In many cases, information about usage is important: context (politics, letters, ...), register (dated, ironical, ...), if use is restricted to a given country, pronunciation (see below), etc.

Abbreviations include the following types:

Abbreviated word, created by removing letters, usually from the end or the middle of the original word.

intl international

- Clipping, a word created by truncating another word, and which often acquires a different meaning:

bus from omnibus
exam from examination
from facsimile
pub from public house

- Initialism, an abbreviation created from the initial letters of a phrase, and which is usually spelt:

e.g. exempli gratia [pronounced for example]
USA Member of Congress; Master of Ceremonies
U.S.A. United States of America

- Syllabic abbreviation, an abbreviation created from the initial syllables of a phrase, and which is usually pronounced like a regular word:

Interpol International Police
Gestapo Geheime Staatspolizei

- Acronym, an abbreviation created from (usually initial) letters of a phrase, which is pronounced like a regular word. Sometimes, vowels are added to ease pronunciation:

AIDS ['eids] Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome
NATO ['neitou] North Atlantic Treaty Organization
radar ['reida:(r)] Radio Detection and Ranging
UNICEF ['ju:nisef] United Nations' International Children's Emergency Fund, until 1953 United Nations' International Children's Emergency Fund

- Apronym, an acronym that is relevant to the context in which it is used (and is usually created "à propos").

BASIC ['beisik] Beginner's All-purpose Symbolic Instruction Code
CARE Cooperation for American Relief Everywhere

- Portmanteau word, a word created by blending other words in both sound and meaning.

spam  from spiced ham

Sometimes a phrase is constructed from a "fake" abbreviation. This is called a backronym:

Save our souls from SOS (emergency signal in morse code)

  5. Proper names

This category includes first names and surnames. As always, gender, language, pronunciation, and etymology (origin) should be mentioned.
In languages such as Russian, you have to consider the shortened form, the vocative of the short form, the hypocoristic diminutive and the pejorative diminutive of first names, and patronymics, too.

Guadalupe f Spanish [gwada'lupe] — ETYM a (Catholic) dedication to the Holy Virgin
Javier m Spanish ['cabier] Xaver — in full Francisco Javier
Pancho m Spanish ['pantòo] Joe — Mexican pet name for Francisco; -> Curro, Paco

An example of an online dictionary of first names is firstname.de.

  6. People and places

They should include names given for the people of a particular region or country (English "demonyms", Spanish "gentilicios").
The following example includes a transliterated excerpt from a Russian dictionary:

Peruánskiî m [note: peru'ansk,ij] Peruvian

    Updated: 2016 January 20
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