How to Use French-English Dictionaries

Lost in translation
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Bilingual dictionaries are essential tools for second language learners, but using them correctly requires more than just looking up a word in one language and picking the first translation you see.

Many words have more than one possible equivalent in the other language, including synonyms, varying registers, and different parts of speech. Expressions and set phrases can be elusive because you have to figure out which word to look up. In addition, bilingual dictionaries use specialized terms and abbreviations, a phonetic alphabet to indicate pronunciation, and other techniques to provide a great deal of information in a limited amount of space. The bottom line is that there's a lot more to bilingual dictionaries than meets the eye, so check out these pages to learn how to get the most out of your bilingual dictionary.

01
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Look up Unmodified Words

Dictionaries try to save space whenever possible, and one of the most important ways they do this is by not duplicating information. Many words have more than one form: nouns can be singular or plural (and sometimes masculine or feminine), adjectives can be comparative and superlative, verbs can be conjugated into different tenses, and so on. If dictionaries were to list every single version of every single word, they'd have to be about 10 times bigger. Instead, dictionaries list the uninflected word: the singular noun, the basic adjective (in French, this means the singular, masculine form, while in English it means the non-comparative, non-superlative form), and the infinitive of the verb.

For example, you may not find a dictionary entry for the word serveuse, so you need to replace the feminine ending -euse with the masculine -eur, and then when you look up serveur, you'll find it means "waiter," so serveuse obviously means "waitress."

The adjective verts is plural, so remove the -s and look up vert, to discover it means "green."

When you wonder what tu sonnes means, you have to consider that sonnes is a verb conjugation, so the infinitive is probably sonner, sonnir, or sonnre—look those up to learn that sonner means "to ring."

Likewise, reflexive verbs, such as s'asseoir and se souvenir, are listed under the verb, asseoir and souvenir, not the reflexive pronoun se—otherwise, that entry would run to hundreds of pages!

02
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Find the Important Word

When you want to look up an expression, there are two possibilities: you might find it in the entry for the first word in the expression, but more likely it will be listed in the entry of the most important word in the expression. For example, the expression du coup (as a result) is listed under coup rather than du.

Sometimes when there are two important words in an expression, the entry for one will cross-reference the other. In looking up the expression tomber dans les pommes in the Collins-Robert French Dictionary program, you may began to search in the tomber entry, where you find a hyperlink to pomme. There, in the pomme entry, you can find information on the idiomatic expression and learn that it translates as, "to faint/pass out."

The important word is usually a noun or verb—pick a few expressions and look up the different words to get a feel for how your dictionary tends to list them.

03
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Keep It in Context

Even after you know which word to look up, you still have work to do. Both French and English have a lot of homonyms, or words that look alike but have more than one meaning. It's only by paying attention to context that you can tell whether la mine, for example, is referring to a "mine" or a "facial expression."

This is why making a list of words to look up later isn't always a good idea—if you don't look them up right away, you'll have no context to fit them into. So you're better off looking up words as you go, or at the very least writing down the whole sentence the word appears in. 

This is one reason that automatic translators like software and websites aren't very good—they are unable to consider the context in order to decide which meaning is most appropriate.

04
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Know Your Parts of Speech

Some homonyms can even be two different parts of speech. The English word "produce," for example, can be a verb (They produce a lot of cars) or a noun (They have the best produce). When you look up the word "produce," you'll see at least two French translations: the French verb is produire and the noun is produits. If you don't pay attention to the part of speech of the word you want to translate, you may end up with a big grammatical mistake in whatever you're writing.

Also, pay attention to French gender. Many words have different meanings depending on whether they are masculine or feminine (I call them dual-gender nouns), so when you're looking up a French word, be sure that you're looking at the entry for that gender. And when looking up an English noun, pay special attention to the gender it gives for the French translation.

This is another reason that automatic translators like software and websites aren't very good—they can't distinguish between homonyms that are different parts of speech.

05
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Understand Your Dictionary's Shortcuts

You probably just skip right over the first dozen or so pages in your dictionary in order to get to the actual listings, but a lot of really important information can be found there. I'm not talking about things like introductions, forewords, and prefaces (although those can be fascinating), but rather the explanation of conventions used throughout the dictionary.

In order to save space, dictionaries use all kinds of symbols and abbreviations. Some of these are fairly standard, such as the IPA (International Phonetic Alphabet), which most dictionaries use to show pronunciation (though they may modify it to suit their purposes). The system your dictionary uses to explain pronunciation, along with other symbols to indicate things like word stress, the (mute h), old-fashioned and archaic words, and the familiarity/formality of a given term, will be explained somewhere near the front of the dictionary. Your dictionary will also have a list of abbreviations that it uses throughout, such as adj (adjective), arg (argot), Belg (Belgicism), and so on.

All of these symbols and abbreviations provide important information about how, when, and why to use any given word. If you're given a choice of two terms and one is old-fashioned, you probably want to choose the other. If it's slang, you shouldn't use it in a professional setting. If it's a Canadian term, a Belgian might not understand it. Pay attention to this information when choosing your translations.

06
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Pay Attention to Figurative Language and Idioms

A lot of words and expressions have at least two meanings: a literal meaning and a figurative one. Bilingual dictionaries will list the literal translation(s) first, followed by any figurative ones. It's easy to translate literal language, but figurative terms are much more delicate. For example, the English word "blue" literally refers to a color—its French equivalent is bleu. But "blue" can also be used figuratively to indicate sadness, as in "to feel blue," which is equivalent to avoir le cafard. If you were to translate "to feel blue" literally, you'd end up with the nonsensical "se sentir bleu."

The same rules apply when translating from French to English. The French expression avoir le cafard is also figurative, since literally it means "to have the cockroach." If someone were to say this to you, you'd have no idea what they meant (although you'd probably suspect that they didn't heed my advice on how to use a bilingual dictionary). Avoir le cafard is an idiom—an expression that you can't translate literally—it is the French equivalent of "to feel blue."

This is yet another reason that automatic translators like software and websites aren't very good—they can't distinguish between figurative and literal language, and they tend to translate word for word.

07
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Test Your Translation: Try It in Reverse

Once you've found your translation, even after considering context, parts of speech, and all the rest, it's still a good idea to try to verify that you've chosen the best word. A quick and easy way to check is with a reverse look-up, which simply means looking up the word in the new language to see what translations it offers in the original language.

For example, if you look up "purple," your dictionary might offer violet and pourpre as the French translations. When you look up these two words in the French-to-English part of the dictionary, you'll find that violet means "purple" or "violet," while pourpre means "crimson" or "red-violet." The English-to-French lists pourpre as an acceptable equivalent to purple, but it isn't really purple—it's more red, like the color of someone's angry face.

08
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Compare Definitions

Another good technique for double-checking your translation is to compare dictionary definitions. Look up the English word in your monolingual English dictionary and the French in your monolingual French dictionary and see whether the definitions are equivalent.

For example, my American Heritage gives this definition for "hunger": A strong desire or need for food. My Grand Robert says, for faim, Sensation qui, normalement, accompagne le besoin de manger. These two definitions say pretty much the same thing, which means that "hunger" and faim are the same thing.

09
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Go Native

The best (though not always the easiest) way to find out whether your bilingual dictionary gave you the right translation is to ask a native speaker. Dictionaries make generalizations, get outdated, and even make a few mistakes, but native speakers evolve with their language—they know the slang, and whether this term is too formal or that one is a little rude, and especially when a word "doesn't sound quite right" or "just can't be used like that." Native speakers are, by definition, the experts, and they are the ones to turn to if you have any doubts about what your dictionary tells you.