Diestros, bullfighters and left-handed people: How to use the dictionary in your compositions.

torero-500x383@2xWhen two teachers meet, they finally end up by talking about their students. They usually interchange ideas on the materials to be used in class, talk about the excessive amount of students they have, the projects they carry out or, not so common, their students’ mistakes.

In general, when two teachers talk about their students’ mistakes, it is not just for the laughter’s sake, but a wonderful way to know where other students put their foot in and check if, in our classes, they are able to avoid them.

One of the commonest mistakes that we, as teachers, have to correct when reading compositions is our students’ choice of an entry in the dictionary. It is usually a word that has no sense in the context of the writing, but if you think of its translation into the students’ logic of his first language, the utterance has a complete meaning.

The other day, I was told by a friend of mine that she had to correct the following sentence related to ESP (Military English).

This sub machine gun may be used by left-handed people and bullfighters.

Este subfusil puede usarse por zurdos y diestros

I cannot imagine the surprise in my friend’s face when she read that. Can you imagine a bullfighter in a battlefield with a machine gun? Perhaps in a Luis Buñuel’s film or in a Dali’s painting but not in a composition.

I cannot even imagine how my friend discovered what her student wanted to say (perhaps teachers have a 6th sense) but once you know the answer, it becomes easy for you to understand it. If we look up diestro in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, we will find that the first definition corresponds to an adjective (to be right or skillful) whereas the second meaning as a noun is “a bullfighter”.


If we try to understand my friend’s pupil’s logic, the sentence

El subfusil puede ser usado por zurdos y diestros.

May be translated into two ways

  1. The submachine gun may be used by left-handed and right-handed people
  2. The submachine gun may be used by the left-handed and the right-handed

In the first sentence left-handed and right-handed are clearly adjectives whereas in the second we may think that the student has thought that these adjectives have been nominalised, so he had to use the entry with the grammatical category of a noun: bullfighter .

In order to use a dictionary in a composition you should follow the following steps:

    1. First of all try not to use a dictionary. Yes, it may seem weird but it is true. Dictionaries are a great tool for other things but if you have to write a composition, try avoiding them. You will surely have a composition in your exam and if you are always looking up words in the dictionary, when the exam comes you won’t be trained in thinking on your own the words you need. There are many strategies we will deal with in other posts such as using synonyms, antonyms, hyponyms or hiperonyms; rephrase what you want to say or even don’t say it. Remember that a composition is an error-avoiding task, so if you don’t know how to say it, don’t say it
    2. In case that you want to use that specific word. Select a correct dictionary. Select first of all, a digital dictionary or a paper one. Nowadays it is much faster to use a digital one, but not all the dictionaries in the net are valid for your English compositions. Check whether your dictionary is for American English or British English, for English for Special Purposes (ESP) or general English, but the most outstanding of its features. It should present the words in context. One dictionary I love is linguee (www.linguee.com)
    3. Browse all the possible translations or definitions. A dictionary is not like google that from the 2nd screen on the search is not going to match what we look for. Sometimes the entry that we search may appear as the 4th or 5th meaning.
    4. Think of the grammatical category of the word found. As we explained above, it is not just the grammatical category what gives us the exact translation or definition of what we are looking for, but it helps a lot. An adverb is unlikely to act as a verb although some nouns or adjectives are converted into verbs and vice versa.
    5. Check the context. If you remember, in letter B I advised you to select a dictionary which presents the words in context. It is time you checked if the word in the context of the selected meaning matches what we want to say.

Finally, if you use the selected entry in our composition, that word cannot be lost. You have to make that word yours, so you must work on it.

This work is beyond the work for the composition, and its aim should be to store the entry in our long-term memory. But, how can you do that?

  1. Listen to the pronunciation of the word for several times, then repeat it. Many on-line dictionaries have the possibility to listen to the word, so use it. The more you listen to it, the more you will remember it later.
  2. Write the entry in different sentences. The more you use that word in different contexts, the more likely you’ll be to remember it. When you decide to use a word from a dictionary in a composition you should never have to look it up again. It has to be used again and again until it becomes part of your repertoire.
  3. Create your own glossary. By writing down the words you learn when you compose, and creating your personal glossary you will be able to revise them more easily.
  4. Try to use it on your next composition. By doing it, you will see that your work is not void and it will encourage you to repeat the process again.

Teachers know that composing is a hard task, but as everything in life, with training you will be able to improve it, and best of all, you will be developing your autonomy in learning.

By |2016-10-14T11:46:28+00:00August 16th, 2015|Communicative competence, Discursive, Lexical, Opinion, Resources for students, Strategic, Writing|Comments Off on Diestros, bullfighters and left-handed people: How to use the dictionary in your compositions.