The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, July 22, 2019

ETpedia Vocabulary: combining knowledge

When I was asked to be involved in writing the new ETpedia Vocabulary book, it was a no-brainer. Having started my ELT publishing career working on learner's dictionaries, although I've branched out into writing a whole range of different types of materials, vocabulary is still my first love.

For those of you not familiar with the ETpedia titles, they're resource books aimed at teachers, each of which contains 500 short teaching tips around a particular topic; young learners, exams, Business English, etc. There are 10 books in the series so far and ETpedia Vocabulary is the latest.

Drawing on a mix of expertise:
I co-wrote the book with Fiona Mauchline and Stacey H Hughes, making a writing team who brought very different skills and perspectives to the party. Our different areas of expertise came out right from the very first meeting in which it turned out to be surprisingly easy to divide up the chapters we'd sketched out for different areas of vocabulary teaching. Fiona is an expert in teaching teenagers, she has a fascinating knowledge of the psychology and neuroscience of language learning and she's full of ideas for sparking creativity. Stacey has a background in teacher training and seemed to come up with an endless supply of varied and creative practical classroom activities and tools. She made me think more about all the stuff that doesn't (and can't) appear on the pages of coursebooks, but goes on in classrooms amongst teachers and learners. For my part, I was happy to fill the language nerd role focusing on explaining terminology, looking a dictionary skills, corpus tools and some of the nitty-gritty of morphology and lexicogrammar. I think our different inputs have led to a fabulously rounded resource which will be relevant to lots of different contexts and appeal to teachers with different teaching styles.

I should also add that blending the input from the three of us, dealing with the inevitable overlaps and differences in style was no mean feat, but was ably handled by crack editor Penny Hands and the guiding hand of series editor John Hughes.

Digging deeper into my own knowledge:
The actual writing process was an interesting challenge and quite different from my usual work of writing classroom materials. It forced me to dig around in my brain and think about the why and the how of vocabulary teaching rather than just the what. It allowed me to rove around all the different aspects of vocabulary teaching that I've touched on over the past 20 years or so. It prompted me to go back and read up again on a whole range of areas, as well as checking out the latest developments in corpus tools and other online vocabulary resources. And inevitably, it left me with way more I wanted to say than would fit into the ETpedia style of short, concise teaching tips! At times, that was frustrating, but it was also a great exercise in trying to pick out the key ideas that were really worth passing on and cutting the waffle.

I hope the resulting book will be a useful resource for teachers to dip into and flick through when they're short on inspiration and want to try something new, when the way they approach vocabulary is perhaps feeling a bit stale and repetitive, or when they're tackling a different type of class (EAP, advanced learners, students with dyslexia or colour-blindness). I certainly picked up lots of great ideas from my co-authors in the process of writing the book and re-invigorated my own approach to vocabulary teaching.

ETpedia Vocabulary is available from the Pavilion ELT website as well as the usual places.

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Friday, June 07, 2019

Manic May

Phew! I've just come out of what felt like a very busy, head-down patch of work. Since I got back from a break mid-April, it's been full-on through to a couple of deadlines at the end of last week … and it's really taken its toll.

As many of you will know, I suffer from a chronic pain condition that tends to flare up when I put in too many hours at my desk. I try really hard to keep a steady, manageable flow of work, but that's always a challenge. In this instance, a number of factors conspired against me:

  • The two main projects I was working on expanded significantly from their original briefs, involving a lot more hours' work to complete, but without the deadlines really moving.
  • A few unexpected queries came in from projects I thought I'd finished. Although they weren't big things, they did take time emailing to and fro, going back to look through documents, tracking down information and generally getting my head back into a different project.
  • Several things also came up about potential future work, all of which is good, but again, is a distraction and requires shifting yourself into a different headspace to consider whether each one is of interest, whether it will fit into your schedule, then flurries of emails, phone conversations and in one case, travelling to a face-to-face meeting.

All of which made for a sense of there being not enough hours in a day and days in a week … and inevitably led to a pain flare-up. That then had its own knock-on effect as I struggled to work through more pain, which made me slower and less productive, so everything took even longer. On bad pain days, there are only so many hours I can manage at my desk, so I tended to work shorter days and with work piling up, that meant I ended up working through five weekends in a row just to keep up. And while fewer hours per day spread across 7 days instead of 5 meant I ultimately managed to keep all those plates spinning and hit my deadlines, the lack of any respite took its toll too.

Thankfully, this week has been much calmer. There's no rest for the wicked though with two new projects starting straight away, albeit at a less hectic pace – so far! – plus decisions to make about what I take on over the next few months. I'm feeling utterly drained and my inclination right now is to say no to everything and just rest, but I need the work and some of it does look interesting.

All of which got me reflecting on my working hours again and took me back to a blog post I wrote  last summer about My Working Life in Stats. As it's almost a year on, I thought I'd do a quick update with this year's stats.

2018-2019 in Stats
It's been a very tricky year for work. Just after I wrote my post last year, I took a couple of months off work almost completely to try and get my health back on track (see Not Working). It did help, in the short term at least. Then, when I got back to working in the late summer, I had a frustrating patch of jobs being delayed and cancelled. This had an especially big impact because I was being cautious about not overdoing it, so I'd only planned in one project at a time and when that dropped off, it left me with nothing to fill in.

As you can see from the graph, things picked up towards the end of the year (the numbers along the bottom are week numbers, so 41 is into October, 01 start of Jan), but work was very bitty with lots of short jobs which led to sudden peaks in busy weeks. January to April was quiet-ish, again with several shorter jobs, then the recent flurry through late April and May.

Financially, the year 2018-19 (that's the tax year April to April) was dreadful with my overall income dropping to about £21K which was just £17K after expenses. In part, that's down to the couple of months I didn't work at all for health reasons, in part it's down to the working time lost through delayed and cancelled projects, and also the bitty nature of short projects (which I wrote about here). I also worked through the autumn and winter on a royalties-only writing project which accounted for around 27% of my hours for the whole year. That paid nothing in the short term (although I have included the hours in my working hours graph), so that's effectively more than a quarter of my year working 'unpaid', but it will, hopefully, pay back in future years (fingers crossed!).

Looking ahead
I'm hoping the year ahead will be an improvement. From a financial perspective, my recent flurry of work through April/May wasn't counted in the income figures above and with solid work through June and into July, I should already be on track for a better start to the new financial year. And with a few potentially interesting projects in discussion, it's looking like the issue over the coming months won't be lack of work but trying to fit it into my schedule in a way that's manageable. In the short term though, I've just booked a week off before things get too busy again to wind down somewhere warm, do very little and hopefully ease off some of those pains!

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Thursday, May 16, 2019

Do we ever mess up things?

At the end of last week, I came across the following on my Twitter feed:

commenting on:

Of course, it was a challenge I couldn't resist!

My first thought off the top of my head was that it was to do with the non-specific nature of the noun things. It seemed to fit into the same category as pronouns which always appear between the verb and particle in separable phrasal verbs. And right enough, further down the thread, I found others who'd come up with similar explanations:

I couldn't let it go with a corpus check though.  I used the enTenTen corpus via SketchEngine which is a web-based corpus, so quite large and quite up-to-date, but not particularly balanced (i.e. it doesn't include a range of text types/genres). In this case, I figured that balance might not be too significant - although if I had time, it'd be interesting to do the same with other corpora.

I started off by looking at the words that most frequently come between mess and up and found:

it, things, this, me, them, something, that, you, everything, us, him, anything, her

So, the expected object pronouns plus something, anything, everything (also technically pronouns, but not ones we'd immediately think of here) and the non-specfic nouns things.

Too bad they messed it up.
It's not the first time they've messed things up.
I was very afraid that I was going to mess something up.

Looking at words following mess + up with no gap between:

the, your, my, their

All of which suggest a more specific object:

She messed up the first one as well.
He messed up the sales figures for an important client.
You've totally messed up your settings.

Digging a bit further, I looked into whether the non-specific (pro)nouns ever come after the particle. 

As you can see, the statistics* lean overwhelmingly in favour of these words following the pronoun rule, but there are enough counter examples that they can't be completely dismissed as 'wrong'. 

There are a number of examples that can probably be discounted because:
a. they're clearly from non-L1 speakers of English (based on the surrounding language and sometimes, the URL)
b. messed up isn't acting grammatically as a straightforward, active verb, but either as a passive or as a modifier:
I didn't realize how messed up things were.
They did some really messed up things when they were drunk.
c. the object includes additional modifiers that make it more normal to put it after the particle – either according to Larsen-Freeman's theory about new information or just because it would be odd to have the particle so far-removed from the verb (you'd have forgotten the mess by the time you got to the up!):
I would often mess up things that seem so easy like …
I don't know how they messed up something as simple as swapping two keys.

There are, though, quite a few straightforward object final examples and as you can see from the graph, some of this set of words seem to be less averse to final position than others. As I read through them, some did sound odd to me whilst others seemed more natural. How do these sound to you?

I'm new to this so I probably messed up something.
She would purposefully mess up things for no reason.

Sometimes, I could pinpoint a meaning to do with emphasis, so in the sentence "He messes up everything", you can just imagine the extra stress on the final word.

My overall conclusion? There's definitely a strong tendency for things to follow the same rule as pronouns and from an ELT perspective, I think that's worth highlighting. Like so many language points though, what people do with language 'in the wild' doesn't always follow textbook 'rules'. The best we can say is that this pattern is the norm and anything else is clearly marked.

*I've used raw frequency scores for the graph rather than the usual 'instances per million' figure because many of these patterns are low frequency and just come out with very similar-looking scores (0.02, 0.01, >0.01) which don't tell you very much.

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