Look It Up — How to Use a Dictionary

“How do you spell ____?”
“Look it up in the dictionary!”
“But if I can’t spell it, how do I look it up?”

Does this conversation sound familiar? You can find words in the dictionary even if you are not sure of their spellings. Two key skills will help you – sounding out words and alphabetizing. Sounding out words and jotting down possible spellings will help you zero in on the correct spelling. Dictionaries are arranged alphabetically by each letter in each word. So knowing how to alphabetize in sequence like this from the first letter to the last is important.


Here are guidelines on how to use these skills to find words in the dictionary.

Sounding out the word. The first step in sounding out a word is listening carefully to its pronunciation. Listen, close your eyes, and say the word out loud to yourself several times then write down possibilities. Work through the word slowly starting with the first sound. What letter or combination of letters could make that first sound? Jot down the possible starting letter or letters and then work on the second sound and so on.

For example, think about what you might write down for the following word: caught.

Here are some tips on translating the sound to the letters.

1. While there are only five vowel letters (a, e, i, o, u) and two approximants (w, y), there are many vowel sounds. For example, the vowel “a” appears in all of these words, but it sounds different.

sand    late    fall    father

The “a” in sand is called a short vowel sound; the “a” in late is a long vowel sound. Long vowel sounds are pronounced exactly the same as they are said when listing the letters in the alphabet. The “a” in fall in pronounced like a combination of “aw” or “au” similar to paw, awl, awful, or applaud. The “a” in father is pronounced like the “a” in the words far, arch, or want.

2. At the end of a short vowel word, the letters l, s, and f usually come in pairs (pull, mess, fluff).

3. To spell the sound “k”, write -k after a consonant (bask, park) and -lk or -ck after a single vowel (talk, sock).

4. To spell the “ch” sound, write -ch after a consonant and -tch after a single vowel. This is true for most short words (pinch, scratch).

5. A single vowel before the “sh” sound will always be short (wish, wash).

6. A single vowel before the “th” sound will usually be short (path, with).

7. The “aw” sound (lawn) can be spelled several ways (-aught, -ought, -awl, -alk, -au, -oss/ost, and a couple of special cases). Examples include caught, bought, shawl, chalk, cause, boss, cost, gone, and off.

8. The “oo” sound (book, took, hood) is usually spelled –oo. Before –ll use –u (bull, pull). Before -ld, use -ou (could, should, would).

9. The “ir” sound can be spelled -ir, -ur, -or (dirt, fur, word).

10. The “or” sound can be spelled –or,-ore,-our, and even –ar if following a “w” (for, bore, pour, war).

11. The “ow” sound is usually spelled -ou (loud, couch). However, if it is at the end of word or before l or n, then it is spelled -ow (cow, how, growl, town).

12. The “oi” sound is usually spelled -oi (boil, noise), but at the end of a word it is spelled -oy (boy, joy).

13. The “ee” sound can be spelled –e-e (gene), -ea (meat, feat), -ee (degree, keep), -ei (receive), or -y (money, technology).

14. If a word starts with an “n” or “s” sound, it is possible there is a silent letter before it. Try kn- (knife, know), pn-(pneumonia), ps- (psychology).

After writing down possible spellings, alphabetize the list. Your list might look like this:

caught    caut    cot    kawt    kot    kought

Now use the dictionary to find the correct spelling.

Guide words. Dictionaries have two words printed at the top of each page. These words are called guide words. The word on the top left is the first word in the list of words included on the page. The word on the top right is the last word listed at the bottom of the page. By comparing the possible spelling of the word you are looking up to the guide words, you can determine whether the word you are looking for will be on that page.

For example, let’s say you are looking for gasket. Would it appear on a page with the guide words Gallic and gargle or gargoyle and gazebo? Compare each letter in the word gasket to the guide words. The letter sequence gas- occurs after the Gal- in Gallic and the gar-in gargle, so gasket will not be on that page. Those first three letters gas- will also occur after the gar- in gargoyle, but before the gaz- in gazebo. Therefore, gasket will be on the page marked with the guide words gargoyle and gazebo.

Use this process to find the first word in the example list:

caught    caut    cot    kawt    kot    kought

In this list, there are two legitimate words which sound similar but have very different definitions. In this case the first possible spelling is a correct spelling. Now check the definition. If the definition fits what you mean to say, then you have found the correct word. If not, repeat the process with the next possible spelling until you find the correct word.

Electronic dictionaries. Dictionaries are also available as part of word processing programs and as stand-alone functions on computers and other electronic devices.

When you are using a word processor and are unsure of the spelling, start by sounding out the word and typing your best guess. If you have the auto-correct feature turned on the computer may fix the spelling right away. The computer may also display a dialogue box with several alternative words. If not, highlight the word in question and click on Tools, and then Spelling and Grammar, the spell-check function. If there is a word of that spelling in the computer’s dictionary, the spell-check function will accept the word and continue checking the document.

But, here’s a word of caution, it is possible the word is a legitimate word, but not the one you want. To check this, highlight the word, click on Tools, and then click on Research. Click on the green arrow after the Search for: box and examine the dictionary entry for the definition.

The steps described here are based on Microsoft Word. If you are using a different word processing program, adapt the process to that program. It will work.

If you are using an online dictionary or a program which is not in a word processor, type in your best guess of the word’s spelling. The dictionary will provide the definition if the word is spelled correctly or it will show a list of possible words. Click on one of the suggestions and read the definition. Continue to work through the suggestions until you find the word you want.

There is no need to say “But if I can’t spell it, how do I look it up?” When you listen carefully, try different possible spellings, and use the guide words in the dictionary, you will have the power to look it up!

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