Using Your Dictionary Effectively

One of the most useful tools you have is your dictionary. A good one can help you select the proper word out of several possibilities to fit a particular context, guide you to idiomatic expressions where a literal translation does not work, find out whether a particular verb requires a direct object, find out what case you need to use with an unfamiliar verb, get the correct conjugation of a verb, and get the correct plural form of nouns. A bad one will make your life miserable and your writing funny or hard to understand. Since each dictionary is a little different, this hand-out will help you select a good dictionary and provide exercises to help you become familiar with it. The exercises are based on the Harper-Collins German Dictionary - College Edition (over 70,000 words) and the paperback Langenscheidt’s German-English/English-German Dictionary (over 50,000 words), two common, inexpensive dictionaries, but they work with others. The Harper-Collins is more complete and has better hints on usage, but sometimes makes finding plurals a bit tedious. The Langenscheidt is less expensive, less complete, somewhat better for finding noun plurals, but much less helpful for picking the correct word, because you have to look up each German translation in the German-English part to see if it could work in your context.

Buy the best dictionary you can. Using a poor dictionary just because you already have it or it is inexpensive will cost you in the long run in effort, frustration, and misleading information. All dictionaries have pluses and minuses, but you should be able to get an adequate one for under $16.00. Look for at least 50,000 words (preferably more) and lots of examples of words in context. When trying to decide on a dictionary, look up an English word, like mind. You should see quite a few expressions, like “on my mind”, “to be out of one’s mind”, or “mind your own business”. You also want to see information on plural forms. Look up the German word Mann. You should see information on its gender (masculine). You should also see some cryptic notations after the word, like -(e)s, ¨-er. (The -(e)s is NOT the plural ending. It is the genitive case ending of the noun. It is traditional in German dictionaries to put the genitive ending before the plural ending of a noun. The ¨-er is the plural ending. This notation means that the root vowel of the noun (a in Mann) is umlauted and er is tacked on the end: Männer.) Look up the verb helfen. Can you tell from the entry how to say “help with something”? What German preposition is used instead of English “with”? If the dictionary you already own or are thinking of buying does not have such information, it will probably not work well for this class.

Let’s get familiar with your dictionary. Don’t worry if you are not familiar with some of the features asked about here. By the end of this class, you will be.

What dictionary will you be using? ___________________________________________

Which of the following does your dictionary have?
    ______Directions on how to use
    ______List of abbreviations
    ______List of German irregular (or strong and irregular) verbs
    ______German noun endings (What kind of information is in this section?)
    ______Anything else?

How does your dictionary distinguish between different senses of a word? (Ex: Do you mind if I smoke? Who minds the children while you are away? A mind is a terrible thing to waste.)

List of abbreviations

What abbreviation/s is/are used for a transitive verb? ___________

What abbreviation/s is/are used for a reflexive verb? ___________

What abbreviation/s is/are used for “irregular”? ____________

What abbreviation/s is/are used for “colloquial” or “slang”? ________

What abbreviation/s is/are used for “accusative”? _________

What abbreviation/s is/are used for “feminine”? ________ “masculine”? _________ “neuter”? ________


Look up the following nouns and provide the requested information for each.

   Hund: gender: _______   Plural: _____________________

         How do you say “go to the dogs”? ___________________________________________

   Zeitung: gender: ________   Plural (yes, it does have a plural form and it is in the Harper-Collins dictionary): ______________________

   Rennen: gender: ________   Plural _____________________   Meaning _______________

   Wort: gender: ________   Plurals __________________  __________________

   spectacles: Which German word is used for glasses? ___________________________ Gender? _______   Singular or plural? _____________

         Which German word is used for a spectacle, a big show? _________________________ Gender of singular? _____

         Which German word is used for a sight or view? _______________________ Gender of singular? _____

   home: Which word(s) might you use in these contexts based on the information in the dictionary?

         The place you come from or live long term: ________________________  gender: _________

         An institution, such as for the handicapped: _________________________  gender: _________


Look up the following verbs and provide the requested information for each.

   bent: ___________________________

   imagine: ____________________________ What kind of verb is it? ____________________

   introduce a person to someone: _______________________________

   weaken: _________________________

You encounter the following German verbs in your reading. What do they mean?

   bog: ___________________________

   ausging: __________________________

   kommt . . . vor: ______________________________