Working with Online Dictionaries

Step 1a: English > Language B: Identify the problem!

  • If you come across an English word you don’t know, take a close look at the passage first:
  • Does it exist outside of this specific text? (It may be a neologism or a name...!)
  • Is it a single word or part of a phrase?
  • Is it a verb, a noun, or an adjective? In which grammatical context does it appear?
  • Is it in some way technical?
  • Is it a regional word?
  • Is it a word used by a specific group of people?
  • It is restricted to certain situations?
  • What social function does it have?
  • Is it used in a particular way by the author or as you will generally use it?

Step 1b: Language A > English: Specify your needs!

  • What do you want to say?
  • Are there any alternatives you might use?
  • In which function and situational context will it appear? (Literature, academic purposes, education, business, administration...)
  • People from which region does it need to address? (BrE = British English, AmE = American English, Australian English, Anglo-Indian, New Zealand English, South-African English, Scots, Irish English, Ulster Scots...)
  • Which level of style will it reflect? (elevated, academic, formal, informal, colloquial, slang)
  • Which field of knowledge does it represent? (Astronomy, Mathematics, Geography, Art, Music, Medicine...)

Step 2: Collect possible translations!

Depending on your browser and search engine, the most commonly used online references are...

Step 3: Select the best entry!

The most complicated task is to narrow down the number of words until you’ve got the one you really need:

  • by checking all the alternatives available;
  • by looking at typical collocations and contexts provided by the dictionary;
  • by checking forums and text corpora;
  • by googling the word and examining its typical context;
  • by looking it up at Wikipedia.

Step 4: Make sure you’ll use it well!

To understand in which context you may or may not use a given word, you need to know a few abbreviations:

  • hum / joc = humorous / jocular (restricted to texts aiming at fun and entertainment)
  • sl = slang (not to be used in academic discourse)
  • poet = poetic, -al (restricted to poetry)
  • vulg = vulgar (rude, should be used with discretion)
  • pej / derog = pejorative ( derogative (potentially offensive)
  • obs = obsolete (old usage, no longer up to date)
  • iro = ironical (will be interpreted to mean just the opposite)
  • inf / colloq = informal / colloquial (not to be used in formal speech or academic papers)
  • form = formal (restricted to official documents)
  • euph = euphemistic (used to avoid saying an unpleasant or offensive word)
  • emph = emphatic (strong emphasis on what is to be said)

Also, the following resources will help you to find more detailed information about a given word: