What are Guide Words?

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Guide words are some of the most helpful tools in navigating the dictionary. Also found in things like indexes, phone books, or reference manuals, they can help narrow down search so that people can determine if they’re on the right page, or if they need to progress forward or back. These determinations really quicken searching, and though many people now rely on things like the Internet for definitions, the day may come when the power is out or when people have to pick up a reference book for other reasons. Fortunately, guide words are still utilized to help make this process easier.

Guide words help users better navigate a dictionary.
Guide words help users better navigate a dictionary.

A very simple definition of guide words is that they list the first word on a page, and the last word on a page. Sometimes the arrangement is a little different. An open dictionary could have a word written in bold on the left page, and one written in bold at the right corner of the right page. This would mean the right side word was the last word of the two dictionary pages.

A lot of dictionaries use a slightly different practice. They list two words on each page, which might be separated by a dot or hyphen, and these words are usually in bold. Sometimes the words are separate by the whole page and there will be one bold word at the top left, and the top right. No matter how arranged, when there are two words on the page, the first word is the first definition found at the top of that page and the second word is the definition word found at the very bottom of that page. It may be helpful to remember the following:

First word equals first listing and definition and last word equals last listing and definition.

When the dictionary is open in the middle, people might read four words across two pages and this can immediately help them decide if they’ll find the definition they need on those two pages. It may only be necessary to read the first word on the first page and the last word on the second page, though sometimes people will have arrived at the right page and need to search in the middle.

In addition to dictionary guide words, many larger dictionaries have some helpful tools for finding a word quickly. A number of these reference books have tabs or thumb tabs that list letters of the alphabet. This helps people get open to the alphabetic section they need.

Since there has been such a trend toward things like Internet searching fewer people may be familiar with guide words. Yet it’s always a good idea to know how to use these and to hone alphabetizing skills. If the subject isn’t taught in school, young readers can be taught this at home given a good dictionary. It’s easy to make up games where parents can ask kids to look up a word and read the definition. Choosing some silly words can make this very fun, and it teaches an important skill that may be yet be quite useful.

Tricia Christensen
Tricia Christensen

Tricia has a Literature degree from Sonoma State University and has been a frequent wiseGEEK contributor for many years. She is especially passionate about reading and writing, although her other interests include medicine, art, film, history, politics, ethics, and religion. Tricia lives in Northern California and is currently working on her first novel.

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Discussion Comments


@calabama71: Very nice and easy-to-understand example!


@dill1971: I hope I can provide you with an example that you can understand here. At the top of every dictionary page is a guide word. As the article stated, the word in the left corner is the first entry on the page. The word in the right corner is the last entry on the page.

Here is an example. Say you wanted to look up the word “compare”. First, you would turn to the “c” section of the dictionary. The first page you turn to, the left guide word might be “camp” and the right guide word might be “coat”. You would automatically know that the word “compare” is not on that page because it comes after the word “coat”.

You would then continue to look at the next pages and find the guide word that the word “compare” fits in with. You might find a left guide word of “company” and a right guide word of “computer”. You would know that your word, “compare” is on this page because it falls in between “company” and “computer”.


I understand what you are saying the definition is but can you give me an example of using guide words?

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