How to use a dictionary - a guide.

Reading Lesson

Let's learn how to use a dictionary and make the most from this valuable tool!

Google translate is a superb tool, however, it cannot compare to the wealth of information you can get from a word when you look it up in a dictionary.

As a student of Portuguese language, you already know that some words in Portuguese will be "masculine" or "feminine" - this will be decisive when choosing between "do or da" (when you mean "of" or "from") or "no and na" (when meaning "in the") . Moreover, the way some words (nouns and adjectives) change when we speak them in the plural - all this and more you will be able to find out if you are using a dictionary.

To make things even more practical, some dictionaries will have a special version for mobiles and tablets with a built in audio facility that gives you the correct pronunciation of the word! These mobile dictionary versions also come with games and extra tools like "bookmarking", word lists etc.

Whether it is a paper dictionary or an electronic version, it is important that you know how to:

  • find the word you need;

  • understand the information given;

  • select what piece of information is relevant for your needs

  • what to do when the word you need is not listed in your dictionary.

How to find the word you need:

Words are listed alphabetically, so use the guide words at the top of each dictionary page - it takes practice to improve your speed in finding words quickly so keep practising until you can find any word within 10 seconds. You should also practise finding words in your own language in your bilingual dictionary. If you use an electronic dictionary, take some time at home to learn how it works and, again, practise finding words quickly.

Useful hints:

  1. Use guide words to save time

  2. Know and use proper alphabetical order

If you don't find the word

  1. Check the spelling - sometimes it is easy to mistake "sc" for "ss", or "ch" for a "x", for instance.

  2. Check if the version of dictionary you use is the most complete. Concise, gem and pocket dictionaries will not be appropriate for students after their first year.

  3. If your word ends in "s", it is likely it is a plural form of a noun or adjective or it can also be a verb conjugated in the 2nd person. If the word is not a verb: try to look it up without the "s" ending. Example: if you look for the word "cadernos", you will find "caderno", which is the singular form. However, if you are looking up the word "lições", you will find "lição". If the word is a verb: Look up the root of the verb, instead of the whole word. If you need to find the meaning for the verb "compraram", try to look up the beginning part "compra" - that is, remove anything you think is part of the conjugation ending.

When you find the word:


Dictionaries will almost always give you more than 1 meaning for the word you look up. This is not a special attribute of Portuguese language, it happens with all languages: the way we use words, the meaning we give to them are not always the same across languages.

  1. Substitute the meaning you find for the word in the sentence. Be sure you select the most appropriate meaning, not merely the first one you come to.

  2. If you are using an electronic dictionary, bookmark it. Some dictionary mobile applications offer the possibility of adding the new words onto a "favourite" tab. Make use of it. If you are using a paper dictionary, write down the word on a separate small notepad. Record each word you look up and try to recall them in the future.