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Using Online (and Print) Dictionaries Effectively

Click here for some practice exercises

A student at another university once concluded a book report: "Arbeitshose ist es ein gutes Buch."  Can you guess what s/he meant?  Hint: What does "Arbeitshose" mean?  Can you think of another English word for that?  Click here for the answer.  The purpose of this page is to help you get the most out of your online (or print) dictionary, and to help you avoid such mistakes.

0. Advice for choosing a print dictionary

  • Consider buying a German phrasebook
1. AVOID using the dictionary when you can!!
2. If you're using an online dictionary, click on the pronunciation icon next to the German words you find.

3. Don't just choose the first word/phrase you find!!!

  • Common sense & gut feeling!!
  • Check multiple dictionaries if necessary
  • Double-check words in context: Linguee.com
  • Google
  • Always check both German-English and English-German!
4. Look carefully at information about multiple meanings of a word
5. Be especially careful with idiomatic expressions (e.g. "catch a cold")
6. Make sure the word you are finding is the appropriate part of speech
7. How to find verb conjugation info, noun genders and plurals, etc.
8. Details: transitive & intransitive verbs; reflexive verbs; dative verbs; prepositional verbs (e.g. "warten auf"); weak nouns
9. Bonus: Wortschatz Universität Leipzig

0. If you plan to buy a print dictionary, here is some advice re: choosing what to buy!

1. AVOID using the dictionary when you can!! When reading, try to guess the meanings of unfamiliar words; look them up only if you can't guess, if your guess doesn't make sense, or it's a word you specifically want to learn. When writing or speaking, try to rephrase what you want to say so you don't need to look anything up. Think of the dictionary as a last resort: it slows you down, and even if you follow the advice on this page, mistakes are bound to happen!

2. If you're using an online dictionary, click on the pronunciation icon next to the German words you find. Hearing the word as well as seeing it will help you learn it, and making a habit of this will give you a better feel for the sound of German. The easy availability of pronunciation samples is a great advantage of online dictionaries. Dict.cc is especially good in this respect, as you can choose from a variety of "crowd-sourced" pronunciation samples for each word.

3. Don't just choose the first word/phrase you find!!! Use your common sense and your "gut feeling." "Ventilator" is surely not the right word for a fan of a team or a band; "Feuerhaken" is surely not the right word for the card game "poker." If you have no gut feeling about the word(s) you find, look for more information, to make sure it means what you think it means (If you're a Princess Bride fan, click here :) )!!! Try another online dictionary, or try Linguee.com, a great resource for double-checking whether a word/phrase you've found makes sense in context. Google is also a great resource for checking whether a word/phrase does what you want it to.

  • Always double check what you find in the English-German "direction" by looking up the result in the German-English "direction" (and vice versa). Note that sometimes only the German-English section will give you important info such as the gender and plural form of a noun, whether a verb is regular or irregular, etc. More on this below!

4. Look carefully at information about multiple meanings of a word.  The PONS online dictionary, for example, actually groups translations by categories of meaning, with brief cues in the heading of each section (in German for German-English queries, in English for English-German queries). A good print dictionary will also organize results for you in this way. Dict.cc provides brief cues in square brackets after some translations, in German or English. It also generally lists the most common translations first, which can save you time if you already have some "feel" for the word. LEO provides no such cues; this is its worst feature. LEO's best feature are the Forum discussions at the bottom of most pages. Look there for suggestions for tricky translation questions (You may occasionally find something fun).

  • If a word has two or more completely unrelated meanings (e.g. "bat"), a print dictionary may have two separate entries for that word.

5. Be especially careful with idiomatic expressions (e.g. "catch a cold," "piece of cake" (when it means "easy"), "cut corners," or "that's the last straw"). For these, you need to look up the complete expression, rather than trying to translate them literally word by word. Online dictionaries let you search for the full expression easily, so they can actually be better than print dictionaries in this respect.

  • In a print dictionary, look for the idiom to be listed in bold print or italics within the category of meaning that best fits it.

6. Make sure the word you are finding is the appropriate part of speech.  If you are looking for the verb "run," don't choose the noun "Laufmasche," which is a run in a pair of stockings.  If you want the verb "to fast," don't settle for the adjective "schnell," etc. ==> Remember that capital letters indicate nouns, and that most dictionaries will include "to" in the English translation of any verb. Notice how your dictionary indicates other parts of speech. Typical notations are adj: adjective; adv: adverb; prep: preposition; conj: conjunction.

7. Online dictionaries differ in how they tell you about verb conjugations, noun genders & plurals etc.

  • Most include an "information" icon (typically a circled "i") next to each entry, which you can click for verb conjugations, noun declensions (plurals, Genitive endings etc.) and lots of other info.
  • PONS: When you look up any verb in the German-English direction, you will see a prominent link to "View Verb Table." For irregular (strong) verbs, the section heading(s) include(s) the notation irreg, and may include the key forms of the verb (present tense stem-change (if any), one-word past tense form, and past participle) and whether it uses haben or sein with the past participle to form the two-word past tense.
  • Dict.cc: When you look up any verb in the German-English direction, you will see a header listing its one-word past tense form, and past participle). Click the "information" icon, then "Canoo," then "Wortformen" to access conjugation tables. Dict.cc is often the quickest of the online dictionaries to use, but finding verb forms does take an extra step.
    • When you first access dict.cc, the default icon to the left of the "information" icon lets you hear the word's pronunciation. Once you choose "Canoo" (or anything else) from the menu of "information" options, that choice becomes the default to the left of the "information" icon, i.e. is faster to access next time.
  • LEO: When you look up any verb in any direction, you will see a "table" icon you can click to view its conjugation table ["Verbtabelle öffnen"]. Entries for all verbs include their one-word past tense form, and their past participle, but you need to click on the conjugation table to see any present tense stem-changes and whether the verb uses haben or sein with the past participle to form the two-word past tense.
  • BEOLINGUS (dict.tu-chemnitz.de): You may like the usage examples accompanying each entry, which also give you a good sense of verb conjugations, noun forms etc.
  • Click for an explanation of unfamiliar terminology and tenses you may encounter in verb tables linked to online dictionaries.
  • Noun genders and plurals (and Genitive endings for masculine and neuter nouns) can be found as follows:
    • PONS has this info in the German-English section. It indicates genders by m (der), n (das) and f (die). Plural forms are listed as follows:
      • "Nase, -n" means the plural of "Nase" is formed by adding an "n": "Nasen"; "Kuh, ¨-e" indicates that the plural of "Kuh" is formed by adding "-e" and putting an umlaut on the "u": Kühe. "Fenster, -" means the singular and plural forms are the same ("add nothing to form the plural"); "Vater, ¨-" indicates the plural is "Väter." Where this shorthand would be confusing, the entire plural form is written out, e.g. "Rhythmus, Rhythmen."
      • The section headings actually give two endings for every noun [e.g. <-s, -e>]: the first is the Genitive singular ending; the second is the plural ending. For example, for "Herz, the endings <-ens, -en> indicate that the plural of "das Herz" is "die Herzen," and the Genitive singular is "des Herzens."
    • dict.cc shows you this info via the "i" icon: i > Canoo > Wortformen (as with the verb forms)
    • LEO shows you this info via the "table" icon (as with the verb forms)
    • BEOLINGUS indicates genders by m (der), n (das) and f (die), like PONS. Noun plurals are listed with each entry.

To find the above info in a print dictionary:

  • Most print dictionaries include a table of irregular verbs. Look for the indication "irreg." after a verb in the German-English section to see if you should look this verb up in that table. For compound verbs (e.g. "mitkommen," "entstehen") you usually need to look up the base form (in this case, "kommen," or "stehen").
  • Some dictionaries instead (or additionally) list the key forms of the verb in the German-English section (as described for PONS above). For compound verbs (e.g. "mitkommen," "entstehen"), they will usually just use an abbreviation like "irreg" to indicate that you need to find the conjugation info via the base form (e.g. "kommen," "stehen").
  • To let you know if a verb forms its two-word past tense using "haben" or "sein" (plus the past participle) a dictionary may write out the form (e.g. ist gegangen or hat gelacht), or give an indication like "aux haben" or "aux sein." Sometimes only "aux sein" is used, on the assumption that all other verbs use "haben."
  • Genders of nouns may be indicated by including der/das/die with the noun, by the abbreviations m/n/f (for der/das/die), or occasionally by the abbreviations r (for der), s (for das) and e (for die).
  • Noun plurals are typically listed in the German-English section using the shorthand described for PONS above.
  • As mentioned for PONS above, normally two endings are listed for every noun: the first is (usually) the Genitive singular ending (using the same conventions as for noun plurals); the second is the plural ending.

8. Details: transitive & intransitive verbs; reflexive verbs; dative verbs; prepositional verbs (e.g. "warten auf"); weak nouns

Even if you do not fully understand all of the grammatical details discussed below, making a habit of looking for examples of how the words/phrases you find are used will help you get these details right!

8a. Transitive verbs CAN take an Accusative (direct) object; intransitive verbs CANNOT. Example: "antworten" (to answer) is intransitive ==> You cannot say "Ich antworte die Frage." In this case, a preposition solves the problem: You can say "Ich antworte auf die Frage." Many intransitive verbs have a transitive "partner" beginning with "be-." In our example, you could also say "Ich beantworte die Frage." In other cases, you need to make bigger changes. "Fallen" means "to fall" or "to drop" (e.g. temperatures drop), but is intransitive, so you cannot say "Ich habe mein Handy gefallen" for "I dropped my cell phone." In this case, you have to say "Ich habe mein Handy fallen gelassen."

  • Print dictionaries and PONS online generally use "intr" or "vi" to indicate intransitive verbs (no Accusative object), and "trans" or "vt" to indicate transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that can take an Accusative object. These abbreviations only accompany verbs in the German-English direction.
  • In other online dictionaries, your best bet is to look for examples to see if the verb you found is used with the kind of Accusative object you had in mind.

8b. Print dictionaries and PONS online generally use "refl," "vr," or "v.refl." to indicate reflexive verbs (e.g. sich waschen, sich beeilen). These abbreviations only accompany verbs in the German-English direction.

  • In other online dictionaries, your best bet is to look for examples to see if the verb you found needs to be (or can be) used with reflexive pronouns.

8c. Dative verbs are verbs that are always used with Dative objects. For example, "I help you" is "Ich helfe dir" (not "Ich helfe dich"); "The Lederhose belongs to me" is "Die Lederhose gehört mir" (not mich)," etc., because "helfen" and "gehören" are Dative verbs. Print and online dictionaries usually use "jdm" (=jemandem (Dative of "jemand": "someone") to indicate that a verb takes a dative object (e.g. "jdm. helfen"; "jdm. gehören"). You may also see abbreviations like "+dat." Looking for examples will help you use such verbs correctly.

8d. Many verbs (and some adjectives) are normally accompanied by a certain preposition; the choice of preposition can generally NOT be deduced from English.  For example, "waiting for" is "warten auf"; "falling in love with" is "sich verlieben in"; "proud of" is "stolz auf"; etc. The best way to figure out which preposition you (may) have to use with a given word/phrase is to look specifically for the verb/adjective + preposition combination you have in mind (e.g. "wait for"; "proud of").

  • If the preposition you find is a two-way preposition (e.g. "auf"), look for the abbreviation "jdn" (Accusative of "jemand" (someone)) or "jdm" (Dative of "jemand"), or for abbreviations like "+acc," "+dat," to tell you if the preposition should be followed by Accusative or Dative. Again, your best bet may be simply to look for examples. For example, "I'm waiting for you" is "Ich warte auf dich" and not "Ich warte auf dir" or "Ich warte für dich."

8e. Weak nouns are masculine nouns that take an "-(e)n" ending in all cases except the nominative singular (click here for much more info on weak nouns).  For example all of the following sentences are about one student (der Student): Ich sehe den Studenten; Ich gebe dem Studenten eine XBox; Die Wohnung des Studenten ist groß; Die Elefanten üben Fallschirm springen etc. Print dictionaries may use the abbreviation "wk" to indicate weak nouns. In PONS, you can recognize them in the German-English section by the endings <-en, -en> listed in the section heading(s). Looking for examples will help you notice weak noun endings.

9. Bonus: Wortschatz Universität Leipzig (Link is in the sidebar of all pages using this template: "Wortschatz Deutsch")

Enter a word into the search window and then scroll down. "Part of" shows you phrases/collocations including your word. Further down, click to expand the "Cooccurrences," "Left Neighbor" and "Right Neighbor" sections. These will show you which words most frequently appear with, to the left of, and to the right of your word. This is VERY useful for figuring out how to use a new word! Note: I recommend ignoring the "Examples" section, as the examples are usually too random and complex to reveal any useful patterns.

Zurück nach oben!

Übungen [NOTE: If you are visiting this page as part of a German 221/231 Assignment, check your section's Canvas site for a quiz about this page!]

Practice Quiz (Shows you 20 questions randomly chosen from an item bank of 40 each time you take it)

Practice Quiz (Shows you the full item bank of 40 questions, in order)

Arbeitshose: Answer to the Question in the first paragraph of this document:

Arbeitshose = work pants = overalls.  The student meant to say "Overall, it's a good book."  There are many reasons why this should not have happened, e.g. the student could have looked at the word and realized it must mean "work pants," and that it couldn't be the word s/he wanted; the student could have realized that the word s/he found is a noun, whereas s/he was looking for an adverb; the student could have looked more carefully and seen that s/he was actually looking up "overalls" instead of "overall."



   
 

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