The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Friday, February 17, 2017

Unexpected corpus findings

I use a corpus all the time when I’m writing – to check how a word’s typically used, its strongest collocates or just to look for inspiration for example sentences. And most of the time, what comes up is more-or-less what I’d expect. Sometimes there’s a collocation I hadn’t thought of, but it’s rarely very surprising. Just occasionally though I’m a bit taken aback by what the corpus reveals …

This week, I was working on some simple vocab practice activities (for B1 level) and I was looking for examples to illustrate the adjective crowded. So I did a quick corpus search to see which nouns it typically modifies. I wasn’t surprised to find:

crowded + street, market, room, area, place, train, etc.

Crowded market seemed like a nice prototypical context which would be easy for most learners to visualize, so I clicked through to browse some examples. In scrolling through the cites, I came across two slightly surprising trends:

The metaphorical: a large chunk of the examples were for the metaphorical, business sense of a market, rather than the physical place with stalls selling goods. I found lots of companies struggling to compete in an already crowded market for energy or cars or whatever. It reminded me that all too often we forget about the very common metaphorical uses of words and chunks in English, assuming that because the learner recognizes the basic, often concrete meaning of an item, they’ll automatically pick up on a metaphorical usage too.

The sad reflection: the other flurry of uses was more of a sad reflection of the world we live in (and the news media who report it), with lots of examples of bombs going off in the middle of crowded markets. It made me wonder about the connotations in different cultures attached to things we tend to view and present as neutral and harmless.

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