A Thorough Guide to How to Use a Dictionary for French Students

by Tim Green is licensed under CC BY-2.0

All foreign language students turn to a dictionary from time to time, whether you're beginning learner or a fluent aficionado. Sadly though, so few students take the time to learn how a dictionary works and few teachers take the time to show their students. To some, it comes naturally, but to others, it's quite confusing. Using a dictionary correctly can vastly expand your vocabulary. Using one incorrectly can lead to some pretty embarrassing sentences! Here, I explain some of the most common mistakes students make when they turn to their faithful dico.

Know your parts of speech.  In all truthfulness, you really can't get much use out of a dictionary if you don't know your parts of speech. So many words mean one thing as a noun and another thing as a verb in both English and French. Some words you may look up in French may have an ambiguous meaning in English if you don't understand what the part of speech is. When you go to look up a word, you must know what part of speech it is. Some students loathe grammar and see no point in learning the parts of speech, but I believe that language acquisition comes much faster if you are aware of what you're hearing/reading/speaking/writing. At least know that a noun is a person/place/thing/idea, an adjective is what describes it, a verb denotes the action, and an adverb describes a verb or an adjective. If you have that down, you have a fighting chance at being able to use a dictionary. Knowing all the parts of speech is stronly advised though. If your grasp of parts of speech is still frail, read this lesson on English grammar, which is accompanied by quizzes.

Don't stop at the first word you see.  It should go without saying that you should not stop at the first word if it is not the part of speech you are looking for, but you must also read the examples, phrases, and sentences that often accompany words with many different meanings. These will give you an idea of what kind of context the word is used in. There will often be a word in parentheses describing in what sense the word is being translated. For instance, looking up "medicine" in WordReference, we have (field) médecine and (drug) médicament as two possible translations. These two words are not interchangeable, but in English the same word is used. The opposite can be true of a French word you are looking up.

Don't translate idiomatic expressions word for word
A good dictionary will have a list of idiomatic expressions that use the word you're looking up. Common verbs like "être," "avoir," "faire," and "aller" often come with an exhaustive list of idiomatic expressions. If you want to know what "avoir soif" means, you will find "soif" mean thirst, but looking under "avoir," you will probably see that "~ soif" means to be thirsty. If you look up two words separately and they don't sound good together in English, look up one of the words and read through the list of idiomatic expressions if there are any. It can be very difficult to recognize an idiomatic expression in English (or whatever your native language) because as a native speaker, it sounds natural to you. In this case, you must be on the lookout for idiomatic expressions whenever you look up a word or phrase. When you go to look up "thirsty" you will most likely find the idiomatic expression "to be ~" (avoir soif) as the first entry, since there really is no word in French that means "thirsty" (the closest is assoiffé which is closer to "parched" in English).

Know what the abbreviations meanMany students are familiar with the basic abbreviations (n=noun, adj=adjective, v=verb, adv=adverb). What is prep though? Prep stands for preposition, a word that indicates direction or location and always goes before a noun (to, from, over, under, etc.). Trans or intrans indicates if a verb is transitive (can take a direct object) or intransitive (cannot take a direct object). Some verbs have both a transitive and intransitive meaning, so knowing this can come in very handy! To put this in simpler terms, "to go" is an intransitive verb because you can't "go" something. "To do" is a transitive verb because you can "do" something. In French you will see an m or f next to the n on nouns, indicating its gender. "Le" or "la" are not used in dictionaries like they are on vocab sheets.


  • Word Reference is the only really good online dictionary. It is incredibly thorough, and where it has gaps, it has an excellent forum where you can post a question or read answers to others' questions. At the end of the word entry, it will link to all the forum posts that talk about the word. It even has a verb conjugator, as well as a very full list of idiomatic expressions accompanying many words. If you're a regular user, you should download their Firefox extension that lets you type your query right into the Firefox search engine bar.
  • Le nouveau Petit Robert de la langue francaise 2009is an all-French dictionary, perfect for advanced users. Get to know the French language better by reading the French definition rather than the English translation.
  • Franklin BFQ-450 Larousse French/English Dictionary, an electronic hand held dictionary, is no replacement for a hard copy of a dictionary, but it's nice and compact and perfect for when you're on the go and space is limited.

Photo by Beauty addict


  1. A good online dictionary coming out of Québec is "Le grand dictionnaire".
    or http://tinyurl.com/2ydsb.

    (There are a few more links for online dictionaries of varying value at the following link.
    or http://tinyurl.com/c86t2o)

  2. has anyone downloaded the French Language Program at http://www.speedlearninglanguages.com ? it says thats the way Diplomats, FBI, and CIA are trained. Sounds good, because I am not good at language learning and always wanted to learn French fast.

  3. @enigma
    I got the French your from speedlearninglanguages 2 months ago and I can highly recommend it. Made already some good progress! I have Rosetta Stone as well but I dont use Rosetta anymore since I got this course. Two thumbs up!


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