Mastering Dictionary Abbreviations for Effective Usage

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By Goke Ilesanmi


Despite the fact that dictionaries are a treasury of linguistic and extra-linguistic information, most people believe that they are just meant for confirming meanings of words, nothing more. I had always had the same notion, until about 24 years ago when I decided to be reading them like I read books, starting with my “Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary”. This article is based on my use of Syntax knowledge as a linguist/grammarian to interpret and amplify various lexicographical (dictionary) abbreviations normally used, to ensure effective usage of the dictionary by users.


In a bid to discuss a lot of things in the limited space of a dictionary, lexicographers (dictionary writers) often resort to the use of abbreviations and symbols, especially in the course of illustration. But a lot of dictionary users, especially those in the second-language environment, find it difficult using dictionaries effectively, especially the grammar aspect, as a result of lack of knowledge of most of the abbreviations and word-class labels used. At this juncture, let us discuss these abbreviations and word-class labels one after the other.




n: This is the abbreviation or symbol of a noun in the dictionary. When it is put against any headword, what it implies is that the word is to be used in the nominal sense, especially in the dictionary context. However, the fact that a word is labelled a noun in the dictionary does not mean that it cannot be used otherwise in other grammatical situations, more so that the name you give to a word is based on its function in a context. For example, the word “Government” is labelled a noun in the dictionary, yet it can be contextually used as an adjective in an extra-dictionary situation, e.g. “The government policy”. Here, the word “Government” is a nominal adjective qualifying the noun “Policy”. It is an adjective, more so that an apostrophe with an “s” (that is, ‘s) is not used.


The mastery of the grammatical behaviour of nouns is very essential as it ensures effective nominal usage. For instance, some nouns can be used in the plural form, while some cannot. Also, some nouns have elasticity of grammatical features. That is, they can be used in a countable way in some situations and also in an uncountable sense in other situations. Therefore, symbols such as [C], [U], and [C,U] are placed against nouns (symbolised by “n”) in the dictionary to reflect their grammatical behaviour. Thus, when [C] is placed against a noun, it means the noun is countable. When [U] is used, it means the noun is uncountable. However, if [C,U] symbol is placed against a noun that has a single meaning, it means it can be used both in a countable and uncountable sense. But if the symbol [C,U] is placed against one of the meanings of a word having more than a meaning, that is, a polysemous word, it means the word can be used either way in that grammatical situation. The examples of words having this grammatical attribute are “Disorde”and “Dispensation”. These two words have meanings with [C] and [U] separately, in addition to another meaning having [C, U].


Lack of knowledge of these symbols makes a lot of people pluralise uncountable nouns such as “Potential”, “Fallout”, “Legislation”, “Equipment”, etc., despite having the symbol [U] against them in the dictionary.


Therefore, endeavour to make it a habit when looking up a noun in the dictionary to check if the symbol against it is [C], [U], or [C,U]. Or check the symbol put against the meaning that matches the one you are looking for if it is a word that has more than a meaning, so as to ensure correct usage.




v: This abbreviation implies “Verb”. Apart from the abbreviation “v” representing the word “Verb”, verbs in the dictionary also take additional labels such as [vi] and [vt]. What [vi] means is “Verb intransitive” or “Intransitive verb”, while [vt] implies “Verb transitive” or “Transitive verb”.


By conceptual simplification, an intransitive verb refers to a verb that does not need an object, e.g. “Slump”, “Weep”, etc. In other words, it is possible to say “The man slumped”; “The boy wept”, etc. without actually mentioning two or more people. Therefore, we would see that in these expressions, we only have a subject and no object because of the nature of the verbs used, that is, intransitive verbs. That is, the action of slumping or weeping can be done by just one person.


On the other hand, transitive verbs are verbs that require an object/receiver in active voice or an object/ doer in passive voice. Examples of these verbs are “Push”, “Kill”, “Beat”, etc. That is, “Gbenga pushed Ojo”; “Mary killed a rat”; etc., (active voice). As far as passive voice is concerned, we have “Ojo was pushed by Gbenga”; “A rat was killed by Mary”, etc. We would see that all these actions require more than the involvement of just one person.


Some verbs have the double label [vi,vt] meaning that they can be used both transitively and intransitively. Examples of these verbs are “Distend”, “Distinguish”, “Double-park”, etc.


Note that it is possible for a verb having more than a meaning, that is, a polysemous verb, to have [vi,vt] plus [vi] and/or [vt]. That is, one of the meanings of the verb may be used both transitively and intransitively; another meaning may be used intransitively; while yet another one may be used transitively if it has about three meanings.




nn: Apart from the abbreviation or symbol “n”, the double symbol “nn” is equally used in some dictionaries to reflect two or more nouns. For example, from the verb “Govern”, “Government” and “Governance” are the two nouns derivable. Also from the adjective “Sensitive”, “Sensitiveness” and “Sensitivity” are nouns that can be realised. In the dictionary, what is usually done is for these two nouns to be written in succession, while the symbol “nn” will be placed against them to show double nouns.




adj: This is another abbreviation used in the dictionary. It is the short form of the word “Adjective”. Therefore, any word that has this grammatical label can be used in the adjectival sense, especially in the dictionary context. Note that the fact that a word is labelled adj does not mean that it cannot be used otherwise. For example, the word “Editorial” is an adjective thus labelled “adj” in one grammatical context in the dictionary, but it is equally used as a noun and labelled “n” in another situation. As a noun, “Editorial” refers to a piece of writing in a newspaper that gives the editor’s opinion about an issue rather than report of facts. In a related development, the word “Adverbial” is an adjective, thereby labelled “adj” in a grammatical situation in the dictionary. But it is equally functioning as a noun and thus labelled “n” in another situation. When used as a noun, it simply refers to any word or phrase used as an adverb.




Apart from the above abbreviation, that is, “adj”, another similar abbreviation used by lexicographers is “adjj”. This is employed in a situation where we have two or more derived words (derivatives) functioning as adjectives. For example, “Continual”, “Continuous”, “Continuant”, “Continued”, “Continuing” are adjectives derivable from the verb “Continue”. “Continued” and “Continuing” are participial adjectives, that is, adjectives realised from participles. In some dictionaries, therefore, what is usually done is that these words belonging to the same word class will be written in succession, with the label “adjj” placed against them to show double or multiple adjectives.




adv: The abbreviation “adv” represents “Adverb”. And when it is placed against any word in the dictionary, it means the word is to be used in the adverbial sense in that context. Basically, most of the words taking the label “adv” in the dictionary are adverbs ending in “-ly”. However, not all adverbs end in “-ly” and not all words ending in “-ly” are adverbs. For example, while we have obscure adjectives such as “Heavenly”, “Cowardly”, “Fatherly”, “Rascally”, etc. ending in “-ly”, thus sharing structure with adverbs, so also we have obscure adverbs such as “Late”, “Wide”, “Low”, etc. sharing structure with adjectives. Additionally, we have temporal adverbs such as “Today”, “Tomorrow”, etc. that do not end in “-ly”.


The obscure adverbs such as “Late”, “Wide”, “Low”, etc. already mentioned are equally used in the adjectival sense. But it is through contextual usage that we can distinguish between the adjectival and the adverbial forms of usage. As regards the word “Late” for example, to distinguish between the adjectival and adverbial classes to which this word belongs, we can say “It is a late hour” (adjective); “He always arrives late” (adverb). As regards “Wide”, we have “It is a wide margin”(adjective); “He shot the ball wide”(adverb). As applicable to “n” and “adj”, when we have two or more words forming the derived adverbs of a word, the abbreviation normally employed is advv.


adv part


adv part: This is the short for “Adverbial particle”. Examples of adverbial particles are “Out”, “Off”, “Away”, “Down”, “Up”, etc. Any of these adverbial particles (as well as prepositions such as “Upon”, “Beside”, etc.) is combined with a verb to form what is known as a “Phrasal verb”, e.g. “Go out”, “Get along”, “Come around”, etc.


anom fin


anom. fin: This is the short form of “Anomalous finite”. An anomalous finite, also called “Special finite”, refers to a verb that forms its negative or interrogative forms without the help of the auxiliary verb “Do”, technically referred to as “Do-support” in Syntax. Examples of anomalous finites are “Need”, “Will”, “Shall”, “May”, “Dare”, etc. By analytical clarification, for example, we have “He shall go” as positive, and “He shall not go” as the negative form. And as regards the interrogative or question form, we have “Shall he go?” Naturally, as far as lexical or main verbs are concerned, we would need the auxiliary verb “Do” to form the negative and interrogative forms. That is, “He goes” (positive); “He does not go” (negative); “Does he go?” (interrogative).


The anomalous finites do not take a To-infinitive. Neither do they take an “s” when used with the third-person-singular pronouns in the present tense, unlike what obtains at the main-verb level, e.g. “He need go there” (anomalous finite “Need”); “He needs to go there” (main verb “Need”).




attrib: This abbreviation is the short for “Attributive”. It is most commonly placed against adjectives to show that such adjectives are to be used before a noun. Examples of attributive usage of adjectives are “A short woman”; “The tall boy”; “A desperate man”, etc. In the above phrases, we would discover that the adjective used in each phrase comes before the noun that it qualifies. In other words, we cannot say “A man short”; neither can we say “The boy tall” nor “A man desperate” in normal English usage. To have any of these adjectival words coming after the word it qualifies, “Who is” or “That is” is placed after the noun phrase, e.g. “A woman that is short”; “The boy that is tall”; “A man that is desperate”, etc.


By analytical extension, “attrib” is equally used in the adverbial situation, especially with some adverbs of frequency, to show that any of the adverbs is to come before the verb it modifies, e.g. “She seldom comes to my office”; “He never believes whatever anybody tells him”, etc. In these two expressions, the adverb of frequency “Seldom” comes before the verb “Comes”, while “Never” comes before the verbal element “Believes”.




pred: This is the short for “Predicative”. It is the opposite of “Attributive”. It is most commonly placed against adjectives to show that such adjectives are to be used after the (pro)noun that they qualify in that situation. Examples of predicative usage are “They are happy”; “Femi is anxious”; “She is hardworking”, etc. Apart from adjectives, some adverbs are equally naturally used after the verb they modify, that is, predicatively used, e.g. “He cancelled the job outright”; “She entered unannounced”; “They arrived unnoticed”; “She did the work unaided”, etc.


part adj


part adj: This is the short form of “Participial adjective”. In other words, it refers participles used in the adjectival sense. These participles may be present participles, that is, those ending in “-ing” or past participles such as “Known”, “Written”, “Assured”, etc. As far as participial adjectives of present-participle structure are concerned in contextual usage, we have “It is embarrassing”; “It is frightening”; “It is frustrating”; “These are our writing materials”, etc. And for participial adjectives of past-participle structure, we have “It is a known fact”; “I saw the torn paper”; “This is the disgraced boy”; “I am disappointed about the way everything happened”; “I have done the written interview”; “She was depressed at the news she heard yesterday”, etc.


Note that grammarians also refer to some of these participial adjectives of past-participle structure, especially “Disgraced” (boy); “Torn” (paper); “Known” (fact) and “Written”( interview) as passive verbs used as adjectives. This is because they are in passive voice and serve as adjectives.


Additionally, what is the grammatical difference between the word “Disappointed” in the expression “I am always disappointed by your brother” and “I am disappointed about the way everything happened?” The answer is that “Disappointed” in the first sentence is only a passive verb, while that of the second sentence, as already said, can be referred to as a “participial adjective”.




cf: This abbreviation means Compare. When it is placed against any word in the dictionary, what is implied is that the word should be compared with any other one mentioned.




conj: This is the short for “Conjunction”. Conjunctions are words used to join two or more words together. There are two types of conjunctions, and these are co-ordinating and subordinating. Basically, co-ordinating conjunctions can be sub-divided into those of adding, contrast and choice. The example of the co-ordinating conjunction of adding is “And”; that of contrast is “But”; while that of choice is “Or”.


As far as subordinating conjunctions are concerned, we have relative pronouns such as “Who”, “What”, “Where”, “That”, “Which”, etc. and others that are not relative pronouns, e.g. “Because”, “Though”, “As”, etc.


They are referred to as Subordinating conjunctions simply because they are employed in complex sentences to join main and subordinate clauses together, e.g. “I saw the man who came here yesterday”. Here, “I saw the man” constitutes the main clause, while “Who came here yesterday” is the subordinate clause, a relative or adjectival clause for that matter, qualifying the noun phrase “The man”.




inf: This is the short for “Infinitive”. An infinitive refers to the basic form of a verb, such as “Be”, “Run”, “Move”, etc. usually going with the preposition To. There are two types of infinitive, and these are To-infinitive and Bare infinitive. The term “To-infinitive” refers to the verbs with the preposition To. Examples of these are I want to go; They have decided to move; They are determined to succeed, etc.


As far as the Bare infinitive is concerned, we have examples such as “I saw him go”; “They watched her die”; “She made them sing”, etc. Note that “Go”, “Die” and “Sing” are Bare infinitives, and as such, they cannot structurally change to the past tense form because they have a silent To at the grammatical deep-structure level.


def art and indef art


def art and indef art: The abbreviation def art represents “Definite article”, while “indef art” is the short for “Indefinite article”. By analytical extension, articles can be categorised into two types, that is, definite and indefinite. The definite article has the word “the” as its structural representation while the indefinite article is “a/an”, with the choice between a and an depending on whether or not a vowel or consonant sound is involved.


The variety “a” is used when a consonant sound (not a letter) begins the succeeding word, while “an” is employed when the next word starts with a vowel sound (not a letter).


There is a distinction between a vowel letter and a vowel sound. There is equally a difference between a consonant sound and a consonant letter. While a letter is concerned with the alphabet, a sound is concerned with pronounciation. So it is possible for a vowel letter to begin a word, while at the level of pronunciation, the same word begins with a consonant sound. The example of this can be found in the word “One” which though begins with a vowel letter, that is, “O”, but starts with the consonant sound “/w/” at the level of pronunciation. Also the preposition “By” that has two consonant letters has a diphthong (two/double vowel sounds) at the level of pronunciation, thus “by”=”/bai/”.




int: This abbreviation has the word “Interjection” as its full structure. An interjection is a word or phrase used to express a strong feeling such as shock, pain, or pleasure. It is otherwise referred to as “Exclamation”. By way of symbol, interjection is represented by the mark”!”




demonstr: This is the short for “Demonstrative”. Demonstratives are another segment of the Determiners. Demonstratives cover both adjectives and pronouns, with examples being “This”, “That”, “These” and “Those”. As far as using these lexical items in the pronoun form is concerned in context, we have “This is the boy”; “That is the boy”; “These are the boys”; Those are the boys, etc. All these examples are applicable to the present-tense situation. In the past-tense situation, we have “That was the boy”; “Those were the boys”, etc.


As regards the use of the demonstratives in the adjectival sense, in which case they will be qualifying other words, that is, nouns, we have “This boy is serious”; “That boy is serious”; “These boys are serious”; “Those boys are serious”, etc. In the first sentence, for example, the demonstrative element “This” is qualifying the word “Boy”.


What is the notional difference between the demonstratives “This” and “That”? The simple answer is that “This” is used to refer to something or somebody that is near in time or space, while “That” is employed in a situation in which what we are referring to is far in time or space, e.g. “That day”; “That house”, etc. The illustration above is equally applicable to the notional distinction between “These” and “Those”, with “These” being the plural form of “This” while “Those” is the plural form of “That”.




imper: This is the short for “Imperative”. An imperative refers to the verb form that expresses a command. In other words, an imperative expression is used to give an order, e.g. “Get out”, “Come here”, “Sit there”, etc. It should be noted that it is not everytime that an imperative or command takes an exclamation mark because it is possible to command somebody to do something without actually shouting. However, if we give a command and shout at the same time, then an exclamation mark is included to show that.


As far as the imperative construction is concerned, we have what is referred to “Indirect directive” in Pragmatics, another aspect of English Studies. Indirect directive is concerned with giving a command in an indirect way. For example, if you say “Can you put on the fan?” to somebody that is near a fan(switch), you are actually not asking a question but commanding the person to switch on the fan. This is a rhetorical question, that is, a question that expects no answer. It is as a result of this type of expression whose form has nothing to do with its meaning or function, and which is therefore beyond the linguistic area of jurisdiction of Semantics, another aspect of English Studies, that Pragmatics came into being.




phr: This abbreviation is the short for the word “Phrase”. At a level of meaning, a phrase refers to a group of words having a particular meaning, especially when they express the meaning well in a few words. Technically, a phrase refers to a group of words having no finite verb. A finite verb is a verb that reflects tense, and examples are primary auxiliary verbs such as “Am”, “Is”, “Are”, etc. and modal auxiliary verbs such as “Shall”, “May”, “Will”, “Can”, etc. However, present participles (that is, “-ing” verbs); past participles( e.g. “Gone”, “Written”, etc.) and the infinitives(whether To-infinitives or Bare infinitives) are non-finite verbs because they do not change form.




pp: This label represents the noun phrase “Past participle”. A past participle is the verb form mostly used in a perfective grammatical situation. In other words, it is used in either a present or past perfect tense. A present perfect tense is formed through the combination of “Has”/”Have” and a past participle, while a past perfect tense is realised through the hybrid of “Had” and a past participle. Examples of past participles are “Gone”, “Written”, “Swum”, “Fallen”, etc.




pref: This is the short for the lexical item “Prefix”. A prefix refers to a group of letters added to the beginning of a word to change its meaning and form a new one. Prefixes are especially central to morphology, which is the level of language concerned with the study of morphemes and the way in which they are combined to form words. Examples of prefixes are “Un-“(as in “Unlikely”); “Dis-“(as in “Dislike”), etc.




suff: This abbreviation is the short for the word “Suffix”. A suffix is a letter or letters added to the end of a word to generate another meaning or form a new word. Examples of suffixes are “-ly” (as in “Usually”); “-ness” (as in “Boldness”); “-less” (as in “Jobless”), etc. One thing that is especially unique about suffixes is that they can change word class. For example, “Bold” is an adjective, but the addition of “-ness”to it has changed it to a noun, that is, “Boldness”. Additionally, the word “Job” is a noun, but the suffix “-less” added to it has changed it to an adjective, that is, “Jobless”. And to further bring it back to a nominal form, we can have “Joblessness”, which contains double suffixes




poss: This stands for the word “Possessive”. Examples of the possessives are “Your”, “Yours”, “My”, “Mine”, “Her”, “Hers”, “His”, “Its”, “Their”, “Theirs”, “Our”, “Ours”, etc. Possessives can be categorised into two parts, that is, possessive adjectives and possessive pronouns. While the word “Your” is a possessive adjective, “Yours” is a possessive pronoun. Additionally, while “My” is a possessive adjective, “Mine” is a possessive pronoun. The word “Her” is a possessive adjective while “Hers” is a possessive pronoun.


However, there is structural overlap between a possessive adjective and a possessive pronoun as far as “His” is concerned. In other words, “His” is both a possessive adjective and a possessive pronoun. Therefore, it is in the contextual usage that the distinction can be made. While in the expression “I saw his car”, the word “His” is a possessive adjective qualifying the word “Car” to show that it is a male person not a female one that owns the car, in the expression “The car is his”, the word “His” is a possessive pronoun, more so that it is at the sentence final position, thereby modifying no word in the sentence.




prep: This abbreviation stands for the word “Preposition”. Examples of preposition are “on”, “for”, “beside”, “along”, etc. Like adverbial particles, a preposition, too, can be added to a lexical verb to form a phrasal verb, e.g. “Go along”, “Go on”, etc.


pres p


pres p: This is the short for the noun phrase “Present participle”. Present participle is the opposite of past participle. It is an -ing form of verb. Examples of present participle are “Going”, “Running”, “Smiling”, “Pointing”, etc.


pres t


pres t: This represents the noun phrase “Present tense”. If this abbreviation is placed against any word, it means the word is used in the present sense in that situation.




pron: This is the short for the word “Pronoun”. A pronoun is that part of speech used in place of a noun to arrest unnecessary nominal tautology. So if this abbreviation is placed against a word in the dictionary, it means the word is to be used in the pronominal sense.




reflex: This label stands for the word “Reflexive”. Reflexive usage refers to the usage in which the doer of an action is equally the receiver, e.g. “Kemi slaps herself”; “The boy stabbed himself”, etc. Other examples of reflexive words are “Themselves”, “Ourselves”, “Yourself”, “Yourselves”, “Itself”, etc.




rel: This is the short for the word “Relative”. Examples of words having this label in the dictionary are “Which”, “When”, “That”, “Whom”, “Where”, “Why”, etc. These are technically referred to as “Relative pronouns”.


pers pron


pers pron: This abbreviation stands for the noun phrase “Personal pronoun”. Personal pronouns refer to the pronouns used for human beings. Examples of these are “I”, “We”, “You”, “He”, “She”, “It” and “They”. These refer to personal pronouns in the subject case. As far as object case of these pronouns is concerned, we have “Me”, “Us”, “You”, “Him”, “Her”, “It” and “Them”. It should noted that the pronouns “You” and “It” have the same structure for the subject and object cases.


Last note


On a note of analytical finality, attaining respectable proficiency in English language can be realised through effective usage of the dictionary which can be achieved by mastering different lexicographical abbreviations used.


GOKE ILESANMI, Editor-in-Chief/CEO of https://www.gokeilesanmi.com.ng and Managing Consultant/CEO of Gokmar Communication Consulting, is a Certified Public Speaker/Emcee, (Business) Communication Specialist, Motivational Speaker, Career Management Coach, Renowned Book Reviewer, Corporate Leadership Expert and Editorial Consultant.

Tel:  +234(0)8056030424; +234(0)8187499425

Email: info@gokeilesanmi.com.ng; gokeiles2010@gmail.com




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