It may seem silly but Arabic dictionaries are very different from English ones and one would actually have to learn how to use an Arabic dictionary to be able to look up words effectively. So this would hopefully assist some people to be able to do this. The following is all based on the Hans-Wehr dictionary.
Firstly, most words in Arabic are derived from a certain three-letter root. The first letter is called the faa-kalimah, the second the ‘ain-kalimah and the third is named the laam-kalimah. This is because when learning the different scales and forms of words the verb fa’ala (faa-‘ain-laam) is usually used. So when attempting to look up a word in a dictionary, you would not just go to the first letter of the word as you would in English, but you would first have to break up the word into its original three-letter form. Eg. the word mu’allim, you would not find this under the letter meem, but under the letter ‘ain, since the root letters of this word are ‘ain-laam-meem.
For the first form of verbs (fa’ala), the past tense has three different forms. The ‘ain-kalimah could either have a fatha (eg. nasara), kasrah (eg. hasiba) or domma (eg. karuma). The dictionary will transliterate the word next to the Arabic which tells you how to pronounce the word. The present tense is the same in that the ‘ain-kalimah could take either of the three harakaat. The dictionary writes either an “a”, “i” or “u” next to the transliteration of the past tense verb. These words indicate what harakaat the ‘ain-kalimah will have in the present tense: an “a” means fatha (eg. yaftahu), “i” kasrah (eg. yadribu)and “u” domma (eg. yansuru). After that the masdar of the word is mentioned in brackets. Thereafter, the various meanings of the verb are listed.
Verbs can be either masculine or feminine; first, second or third person; and singular, dual or plural. The verb will change slightly depending on which combination of these things it is. So for the past tense the verb could be any one of the following:
fa’ala, fa’alaa, fa’aloo (3rd person, male: single then dual then plural)
fa’alat, fa’alataa, fa’alna (3rd person, female: single then dual then plural)
fa’alta, fa’latumaa, fa’altum (2nd person, male: single then dual then plural)
fa’alti, fa’altumaa, fa’altunna (2nd person, female: single then dual then plural)
fa’altu, fa’alnaa, fa’alnaa (1st person: single then dual then plural)
So when looking up verbs you would have to recognise whether it is masculine or feminine; first, second or third person; and singular, dual or plural; since these things affect the meaning of the word. You would also disregard any additions to the verb based on these things in order to arrive at the root letters. Eg. “darabtum” – the tum is additional (it indicates plurality; 2nd person) so the root letters are daad-raa-baa. “Shahidnaa” – the naa is extra (shows plurality, first person) so the roots are sheen-haa-daal. “Jalasat” – the taa is there to show that it is feminine so the root is jeem-laam-seen. And so on.
The same is for the present tense. The verb could be:
yaf’alu, yaf’alaani, yaf’aloona (3rd person, male: single then dual then plural)
taf’alu, taf’alaani, yaf’alna (3rd person, female: single then dual then plural)
taf’alu, taf’alaani, taf’aloona (2nd person, male: single then dual then plural)
taf’aleena, taf’alaani, taf’alna (2nd person, female: single then dual then plural)
af’alu, naf’alu, naf’alu (1st person: single then dual then plural)
So to get to the root letters, you ignore any additions to the verb based on the these things. In all cases the yaa or taa at the beginning of the verb must be dropped. Eg. “yaktubaani” – the aani shows that it is dual so the roots are kaaf-taa-baa. “Tashrabeena” the eena indicates that it is second person, female, so the root letters are sheen-raa-baa. “yahrimna” the noon is dropped (it indicates that the verb is feminine, plural) so the roots are haa-raa-meem.
Very often there are pronouns added to the verbs. In such cases the pronoun is the object of the verb and is not part of it. So these must be ignored when trying to determine what the root letters of the verb are. These pronouns are:
ha, humaa, hum (3rd person, male: single then dual then plural)
haa, humaa, hunna (3rd person, female: single then dual then plural)
ka, kumaa, kum (2nd person, male: single then dual then plural)
ki, kumaa, kunna (2nd person, male: single then dual then plural)
(the letter) yaa, naa, naa (1st person: single then dual then plural)
There are ten different forms of the verb (the above was only based on the first form.) Each form after the first one has certain letters added to the three-letter root. These ten forms are:
I fa’ala – yaf’alu
II fa’3ala – yufa’3ilu (tashdeed on the ‘ain-kalimah)
III faa’ala – yufaa’ilu (alif after the faa-kalimah)
IV af’ala – yuf’ilu (hamza before the faa-kalimah)
V tafa’3ala – yatafa’3alu (taa before the faa-kalimah, tashdeed on the ‘ain-kalimah)
VI tafaa’ala – yatafaa’alu (taa before the faa-kalimah, alif after it)
VII infa’ala – yanfa’ilu (hamza and noon before the faa-kalimah)
VIII ifta’ala – yafta’ilu (hamza and taa before the faa-kalimah)
IX if’alla – yaf’allu (hamza before the faa-kalimah, tashdeed on the laam-kalimah)
X istaf’ala – yastaf’ilu (hamza, seen and taa before the faa-kalimah)
(Click to see the Arabic )
What is written in brackets shows what letters have been added to the original three-letter root in the various different forms. These additional letters must be dropped when looking up the verbs. Eg. “Istaghfara” is on the tenth form so the hamza seen and taa are dropped: the roots are ghain-faa-raa. “Yuqaatilu” – the yaa shows that it is present tense so that is ignored. This word is on the third form (the alif is extra) so the roots are qaaf-taa-laam. “Insarafa” – this is on the seventh form so the root letters are saad-raa-faa.
When looking up verbs the first form is given first, with all its meanings. Then after that there will be various Roman numerals, such as III, or IX or V. These numbers indicate which other forms of the verb the root letters can accommodate (not all words can take all of the ten forms) and the meanings of the verb in each of these forms.
There are additional forms over and above that of the ten mentioned here but these are rare and not used much. There are also certain verbs which have an original root of four letters and not three but these are also uncommon.
After the meanings of the verb are listed, and that of the different forms of the verb, all the nouns which can be derived from that verb are listed. Many of the words which begin with a meem – such as muhsin, mujaahid, mu’allim etc. – are such nouns. So if you see words like this, drop the meem to get the root letters. So for these words given here, muhsin is from haa-seen-noon, mujaahid comes from jeem-haa-daal and mu’allim from ‘ain-laam-meem.