1. How do you find a word in a dictionary? you need to learn the alphabet!
2. What does the dictionary tell you? It tells you (a) spelling (b) meaning (possibly many meanings for one word, you have to guess which one e.g. 'head' or 'bank') (c) how to say the word (d) which word class the word is (e.g. both 'head' and 'bank' can be both nouns and verbs - see Word Class).
3. Let's look at how you say the word. If it is more than one syllable, look it up in your dictionary and look to see where the little mark shows you the most important syllable is: for example, 'dictio-na-ry/im'por-tant. This is called the 'stress' (n.b. this important syllable usually begins with a consonant, if you're not sure how to divide up the word when you say it!).
Practice Exercise: which one is not the same? (we say the 'odd one out')
e.g. 1. photograph 2. politics 3. beautiful 4. inventor
Which one is the 'odd one out'? Number 4. The stress is on the second syllable, not the first.
Now do the same for these words: (a good dictionary is The Longman's Dictionary of Contemporary English)
1. astronaut; biologist; photographer; biographer
2. hungry; unless; brilliant; omen;
3. syllable; marathon; description; alphabet
4. never; reverse; deny; allow
5. inform; excite; remove; bitter
6. exclamation; information; influential; geography;
7. resign; recent; return; replace
8. Indian; Italian; Austrian, African;
9. decent; define; delay; delete;
10.responsible; infallible; reasonable; inaudible;
11.expensive; national; frustrating; inspiring
1. astronaut (stress on first syllable), biologist, photographer, biographer.
2. unless (the stress is on the second syllable); hungry; brilliant; omen.
3. description (the stress is on the second syllable and it is always on the syllable before the ending '-tion'); syllable; marathon; alphabet.
4. never (the stress is on the first syllable); reverse; deny; allow.
5. bitter (the stress is on the first syllable); inform; excite; remove.
6. geography (the stress is on the second syllable); exclamation; information (the rule is stress the syllable before the ending '-ion'); influential
7. recent; resign; return; replace
8. Italian; Indian; Austrian; African
9. decent; define; delay; delete
10. reasonable; responsible; infallible; inaudible
11. national; expensive; frustrating; inspiring
n.b. you need to know where the stress is in order to be able to understand when people speak English to you. The other syllables are not stressed which means you do not hear them clearly!! That's the rule: if the syllable is not stressed you don't pronounce the vowel strongly.
With thanks to Helen Oliver, The Language Institute, Waikato University, Hamilton, New Zealand.
See The A - Z of English Grammar & Usage for the rules.