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Wildly irregular or no longer insuperable?
Approaches to teaching and
learning phrasal verbs


Language interference
False friends between
Spanish and English

Focus on Phrasal Verbs:
How new phrasal verbs develop

New word of the month
From metrosexual to metrosessuale:
the global influence of English in
the creation of neologisms

Corpora tips
Googling for idiomatic language
Search engines as corpora tools

Corpora tips
Googling for idiomatic language
Search engines as corpora tools
by Mairi MacDonald

Last in a series of articles looking at ways in which teachers and students can explore words using free corpus resources on the Web.

 • Corpora tools vs search engines
 • Search strategies
     1 Phrases
     2 Wildcard searching
     3 Narrowing down the search field
 • Activity 1: Idioms gap fill
  More Googling: evaluating search results
  Activity 2: Search engine quiz
  Information overload?

Over the last few months, we have looked at how online corpora such as the British National Corpus (BNC) and WebCorp extract grammatical information and in the case of WebCorp actually sort your search results, but what about everyday search engines? What clues can they reveal about word behaviour?

The comments in this article are based on Google searches and some of the search strategies discussed are only possible in Google.


Corpora tools vs search engines

Search engines do not sort your search results or allow you to search according to grammar. The Web contains so much raw data that search results can be misleading, too obscure or simply incorrect. So what value can search engines be to learners?

Corpora search tools and Internet search engines share the same basic functions. Like corpora tools, search engines:

display frequency information. The search results page will tell you how many pages contain your search term.
provide an instant context for your search term. Search results contain the surrounding text from the web page your search words appear on.
allow you to narrow down your results by searching only certain sections of the Internet such as newspapers, UK or US sites.

The main advantage with search engines is that they are readily and freely accessible. Unlike some specialized corpora sites, no subscription is required and it is very unlikely that a major search engine such as Yahoo or Google is unavailable as a result of technical difficulties.

It is also a tool that students are familiar with in their own language so most students will be confident in using a search engine and user-training is not an issue.

Finally, the Internet is the best source for the very latest examples of English. It can take time for corpora sources to be incorporated and tagged, but the Web literally provides up-to-the-minute examples of English.


Search strategies

1 Phrases
As a vast source of authentic language, the Web is rich in idiomatic language. Using inverted commas (“ ”) in your search allows you to look for fixed phrases and idioms. If you leave out the inverted commas, you might find yourself with a very different set of results: see below for an example of the phase like a dog with a bone with and without inverted commas.


2 Wildcard searching
Google allows wildcard searching. This is where an asterisk (*) replaces a word, letter or group of words. This can generate productive examples of semi-fixed expressions.

For example, typing “to put it *ly” into Google will create examples of the phrase to put it [adverb] such as to put it mildly/bluntly/
etc. Inevitably students will have to sift through some nonsense, but more on this below.

Similarly, “as * as they come” gives us examples of the phrase as [adjective] as they come for example as corrupt/tough/sober as they come.


3 Narrowing down the search field
If you want to restrict the range, Google can focus on news sites or books. Try for US news sites or for UK news sites. Books can be searched at This should mean that the sentences returned have been edited and are more likely to be grammatically correct. At the other end of the spectrum, will search only blogs, which will produce a much more varied and unedited range of language.


Activity 1: Idioms gap fill

In this activity students are asked to use Google to research idioms. Choose a selection of idioms appropriate to their level. You need to be selective about the idioms you use e.g. “kick the *” for “kick the bucket” is unlikely to give you the results you want. Copy and paste definitions from the Macmillan English Dictionary CD-ROM for students to match.

Try the following searches in Google and complete the idioms below. Don’t forget to use quotation marks “ ” when searching.

1 “get off your high *”
2 “give a dog a bad *”
3 “hit the * on the head”
4 “twist * around * little *”
5 “like getting * from a stone”
6 “like the * that got the cream”
7 “see * hide nor * of”

Now match each idiom to its definition.
a to easily persuade someone to do what you want
b used for saying that once someone has a bad reputation, people will blame them for everything
c to have definitely not seen someone
d used for saying that it is very difficult to persuade someone to give you something or tell you something
e to stop behaving as if you know more or are better than anyone else
f to say something that is exactly right or very true
g very pleased about something you have achieved



More Googling: evaluating search results

Inevitably the search results will throw up oddities, for example a search of “eyes in the back of your head” threw up “eyes in the back of your mouth” as the first result. It is essential that students use search engine results critically and not just grab the first thing they glance at.


Activity 2: Search engine quiz

The problem with the Web is that there is just too much information but good search habits can reveal valuable clues for learners to work with. The following activity aims to get students to think about the search results and how they can use search engines to find out more about a word.

1 The expressions dead as a doornail, dead as a dodo, dead as a duck are all idioms describing something that is completely dead. Search on all three and decide which is more frequent.
2 Type in “be the cat’s *” to find an idiom that means ‘to be better than everyone else’.
How many variants can you find?
Which are American and which are British English?
3 Type in “cut the mustard”.
  a What does this expression mean? (Hint: click on the definition link to the right of the search results.)
  b What sort of websites contain this idiom? What does this tell you about how it is used?
  c Now search using Is this idiom usually used in negative or positive sentences?



Information overload?

Accessing a vast body of material does have its downside: you can get too many search results to get anything meaningful from them and some sources can be too obscure or just plain weird. These can be overcome by adopting careful search strategies and as long as we are mindful of these disadvantages, there’s no reason why search engines can’t become an everyday tool for language learners.