Advice on Using a Dictionary

Click here for some practice exercises

A student at another university once concluded a book report: "Arbeitshose ist es ein gutes Buch."  Any idea 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 worksheet is to help you get the most out of your dictionary, and to help you avoid such mistakes.

General Advice

1. Get a reasonably good one.  None of the available dictionaries is excellent, in my opinion.  The one we have recommended for the course is fairly good, handy, and not too expensive.  This handout will refer to it for examples, so if you have a different dictionary, you should read your dictionary's introductory pages to figure out how the corresponding information appears in it.  One negative piece of advice: avoid the smaller (yellow) Langenscheidt's dictionaries.  The layout is confusing, and there are some gross errors (not that this company does not also produce some excellent products).  Please note that this is just my (Hartmut's) opinion…!

2. Use your common sense when looking up a word.  If the word you find "feels" wrong, it probably is (cf. ArbeitshoseJ).

3. Read carefully the information your dictionary supplies about different categories of meaning.  Our dictionary, for example, uses brief cues in italics to identify these differences.  Within those categories, idiomatic expressions (like "catch a cold") are listed in bold type—these are where you really need to be careful to avoid making funny mistakes.  If a word has two or more completely unrelated meanings (e.g. "bat"), the dictionary will generally have two separate entries for that word.

4. Make sure the word you are finding is the appropriate part of speech.  If you are looking for the verb "run," you're not going to want the noun "die 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.

Specific Advice

1. Unless you're confident you found the right word, double check what you look up in the English-German part of the dictionary by looking up the result in the German-English section (and vice versa) to make sure the word you found means what you think it means.  The other reason to do this is that the German-English section will give you lots of info you need such as the plural form, whether a verb is intransitive or transitive, whether a verb is a dative verb etc.  In some dictionaries, you can only find the genders of nouns in the German-English part.

2a. Most dictionaries include a table of irregular verbs.  In the German-English section, the indication "irreg." after a verb then generally indicates that you should look this verb up in that table.  Our dictionary doesn't have a verb table and instead conveniently lists the principal parts of irregular verbs in bold print at the beginning of the German-English entry.  For compound verbs (e.g. "mitbringen," "entstehen"), our dictionary uses the indication "irreg" to indicate that you should look under the stem (e.g. "bringen," "stehen") to find the principal parts.

2b. Most dictionaries will let you know if a verb forms its perfect tense using "sein." Our dictionary does this by the indication "aux sein."  Remember that many such verbs can also be used transitively, in which case they no longer use "sein"--e.g. "Ich bin gefahren" but "Ich habe das Auto gefahren." 

2c. Our dictionary places an asterisk (*) after any verb that forms its past participle without "ge-."

3a. Be sure you know how your dictionary lists genders of nouns!

3b. Check out how your dictionary lists plurals of nouns.  Most dictionaries list the German plurals in the German-English section as follows: "Kuh, ¨-e" indicates that the plural of "Kuh" is formed by adding "-e" and putting an umlaut on the "u."  Where this would be confusing, the entire plural form is written out, e.g. "Rhythmus, Rhythmen."  Our dictionary only follows this procedure for nouns with irregular plurals, unfortunately.  It has a long list of regular German noun endings on p. xvi.  That means that whenever you don't find the plural of a noun listed in the German-English section, you need to turn to p. xvi and look it up there according to the noun ending.  This is annoying in the short run, but good in the long run, since it's great if you learn those patterns.

3b. Genitive singular endings are listed in a similar manner right after the plural ending.  Dictionaries often list these for all masculine and neuter nouns to help you decide whether the ending is "-s" or "-es" or something else.  Thus, the entry "Herz, -en, ens" indicates that the plural of "das Herz" is "die Herzen," and the genitive singular is "des Herzens."  Of course there is no need to list genitive endings for feminine nouns, which don't get any genitive endings.  Our dictionary again does not list genitive endings for nouns with regular ending patterns; again, for such nouns you can find this info on p. xvi.

4. Dictionaries use different symbols to indicate transitive and intransitive verbs, to indicate reflexive verbs, to indicate dative verbs, and to indicate the prepositions that generally accompany some verbs (e.g. "warten auf"):

4a. "vi" generaly indicates an intransitive verb, i.e. a verb that cannot take an object, such as sleep (You can sleep, but you can't sleep the dog.  You can sleep with the dog, but then the dog is the object of the preposition "with," not of the verb "sleep").  "vt" generally indicates transitive verbs, i.e. verbs that can take an object.

4b. "vr" [in our dictionary] or "v.refl." generally indicates reflexive verbs.

4c. "dat" or (+dat) generally indicates dative verbs such as "helfen," which is how you would know you need to say "ich helfe dir" and not "ich helfe dich."  In the German-English section, "jdm" (=jemandem) indicates that a verb takes a dative object.

4d. You should generally be able to find whether a verb is normally accompanied by a certain preposition.  For example, for "warten," our dictionary writes in parentheses in the German-English part "(auf + acc for)" and in the English-German part under "wait" it writes "(for auf + acc)."  Thus you would know to say "Ich warte auf dich" and not "Ich warte auf dir" or "Ich warte für dir."

4e. Weak nouns are generally marked "wk."  These nouns take an "-(e)n" ending in all cases except the nominative singular.  Ex.: der Elefant: Ich sehe den Elefanten; Ich gebe dem Elefanten einen Hut; Der Kopf des Elefanten ist groß; Die Elefanten üben Fallschirm springen etc.


A. der, die oder das?

a. ______ Kaninchen                                b. ______ Haschisch                    c. ______ Disco

d. ______ Zwerg                                     e. ______ Rettich                        f. ______ Urwald

B. Was ist der Plural? [write "nichts" if there is no plural]

a. Kaninchen ___________                       b. Haschisch ___________            c. Disco ___________

d. Tankstelle ___________                        e. Urwald [==> look under "Wald"] ___________

C. Cross out the sentences that are grammatically impossible because the verb is intransitive and cannot take an object.

a. Der Junge fällt die Thelonius Monk Platte.

b. Anna antwortet nicht die Fragen von ihrem Vater. [note/hint: Our dictionary has the indication "vti" (=transitive and intransitive verb) because technically the answer you provide can be a direct object of "antworten," but the person and the question you answer cannot: you have to say "Ich antworte auf die Frage" & "Ich antworte meinem [Dative] Vater."]

c. Annas Vater schlägt Anna.

d. Anna kämpft ihren Vater. [note/hint: Our dictionary lists "kämpfen" as both vi and vt, but the vt use is only for expressions like "Er kämpft einen heroischen Kampf."  To say who you fight against, you need to use gegen.]

D. Write the past participles of:

a. überbringen ___________                      b. verbieten ___________             c. volltanken ___________

E. Check the verbs that are generally conjugated with "sein":

a. ______ sterben                                    b. ______ fönen                          c. ______ geschehen

F. Check the weak nouns (see p. 21 in this Coursepack for information on weak nouns):

a. ______ Zwerg                                     b. ______ Nachbar                       c. ______ Hase

G. Check the dative verbs:

a. ______ gehorchen                                b. ______ gehören                       c. ______ schenken

H. Translate the preposition in italics (see 4d):

a. wait for ___________                           b. die of ___________                  c. talk about ___________

I. Choose the best translation for the underlined word:

1. Everyone had a good time at the party:                                                    

a. Party                          b. Gruppe                       c. Partei                         d. feiern                         e. Gesellschaft

2. Someone broke Anna's dad's favorite record.         

a. Rekord                       b. aufzeichnen                 c. Schallplatte                 d. Vorgeschichte              e. aufnehmen

3. Anna gets in the car with Simon.

a. bekommt                    b. wird                           c. erhalten                      d. gerät                          e. steigt ein

J. What did this person mean to say?  How should s/he have said it?

1. Ich habe am Samstag eine Dattel. ==> S/he meant to say ___________________________________________________.

S/he should have said: Ich habe am Samstag eine _______________________.

2. Wir gehen in einen Stab. ==> S/he meant to say __________________________________________________________.

S/he should have said: Wir gehen in eine ___________________.

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."