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Understanding phrasal verbs:
is there a system?


Focus on Language Awareness:
UK version ¦ US version

New word of the month
Words made in Hollywood

Corpora tips
The bigger picture: exploring
words with WebCorp

Sporting vocabulary

Corpora tips
The bigger picture: exploring words
with WebCorp
by Mairi MacDonald

• What is WebCorp?
• How to search
• Example search tip
• Teaching tips
• Classroom suggestions
• Next in the series

In the last article we looked at how newspaper and media websites can be used to explore neologisms. But what about more common, everyday words? What resources are available on the Internet to analyse and interpret the behaviour of everyday language? This month's article will focus on some of the powerful tools available on WebCorp.

What is WebCorp?

WebCorp is the product of the Research and Development Unit for English Studies at the University of Central England in Birmingham. Like any Internet search facility, WebCorp allows you to view the entire Web as a body of text. However with its various filters and sorting options WebCorp goes far beyond the functionality that you would find in a typical search engine or newspaper archive search.

A simple search on WebCorp generates a list of examples called concordances from a selection of websites. These examples can then be sorted into a list where your search term is highlighted in red. The concordances are listed in alphabetical order according to the word that occurs to the left or right of your word. This gives you an instant picture of any grammatical patterns or collocation. WebCorp also provides a link to websites the words were taken from.


How to search

Advanced searching is the most efficient way to investigate the word you want to examine. It enables you to narrow down your search options and generate meaningful results that can be used to great effect in the classroom. The advanced search page might look daunting but you don't need to complete every field. WebCorp has a detailed guide which can help you make more complex searches than the one outlined below.

1 Go to Advanced (Search Options).
2 Type in the word you want to research in the Search term box.

If you want to restrict your search to British English, scroll down to Newspaper Domains and select UK broadsheets.

Searching broadsheets will give you a good range of language use and exclude anything too technical or specialised. When using data for learners it is important to be able to narrow down the search field. For example for the purposes of your lesson, you might not want to get sidetracked by a discussion on UK/US variants so you can limit your search to just UK or US newspapers.

4 Scroll further down and select One concordance line per web site. This avoids too much repetition. It is also a good idea to select Exclude link text and Exclude wildcard match to e-mail address. This cuts out navigation menus and website addresses.

Click on Submit.

It sometimes takes a couple of minutes to generate the initial list of concordances. Fortunately once you have your search results you can change the sort options without having to search again. This problem seems likely to be resolved as the WebCorp website indicates that there will be "significant improvements" in the speed of WebCorp later this year as well as "an increase in the range of processing options".

6 Scroll down to the Sort Options and decide whether you want to sort the results according to the word to the left or to the right of your word and click on Sort. This will create a neat list of concordances. To re-order your list click on the Back button on your browser and change the Sort Options.


Example search – tip

A left word search on the word tip finds phrases such as council tip and waste tip. A right word search gives us idioms like tip of the iceberg, (on the) tip of my tongue and verb phrases such as tip the scales and tip off.

Looking at tip as a noun, a fuller picture is found by looking for plural instances – typing [ti[p|ps] into the search box will generate concordances containing tip or tips.

From this search it can be seen that tip occurs more frequently as a plural noun and that top is a frequent collocate.


Teaching tips

1 You can edit your search results to help illustrate a specific language point or remove examples that are too technical or not relevant by selecting HTML tables (KWIC) in the Output format option. On the search results page simply uncheck the box to the right of the concordance you wish to leave out. These examples will be excluded when the results are sorted.
2 You can determine the concordance span, i.e. the amount of words given to the left and right of each search word. However it is important that your examples appear in one line or the instant visual image of your word's behaviour will be lost.
3 If you want your students to do their own research, demonstrate the tool. Searching is easy but some of the terms used by the site are off-putting for non-technically-minded native speakers, never mind learners. Students also need to be familiar with terms like concordance and what is meant by position. Explain to students what a concordance is and point out that it is different from a sentence.
4 Once you have your search results, use the Back button on your browser to amend the sort options. This saves time as each new search can take several minutes.


Classroom suggestions

The following questions can be used to get students to think about the search results:

What are the most common verbs/prepositions/nouns found with your search term?
How many parts of speech are there?
How many senses can you find for your chosen word?
What differences does it make when you do a left and right sort?
Are there any idioms?

If you are looking at British and American English, you could get one half of the class to search UK broadsheets, the other half US broadsheets and compare and discuss any differences.


Next in the series

Next month's article will take a closer look at WebCorp's advanced searching options and how they can be integrated into lessons.