The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, March 01, 2021

RSI Day 2021: pain in a pandemic

Yesterday, 28 February, was RSI Awareness Day. This year, even for those of us used to working from home, our work routines have been thrown up in the air and healthy working habits have gone a bit awry.  It's also been a fairly reflective sort of year, so I thought it might be time to talk about some of my pain-related ups and downs. To explain the past year though, I’m going to have to take you back a bit …apologies to those who’ve heard some bits of this story before.

I broke my right collarbone in a car accident. I was told it'd healed and was sent off to live fairly unbothered by it for the next 10 years or so.

After spending my 20s teaching abroad, I’d just switched to a desk-based job as a lexicographer when I suddenly started getting severe pains in my right hand, arm, shoulder and neck. I was initially diagnosed with RSI and after lots of appointments, discovered that my collarbone had never fixed properly but was wobbling around causing a generally unstable wonky top right corner and putting all kinds of stresses and strains on the nerves, tendons and muscles around it.

2000 onwards:
Having had lots of doctors more-or-less shrug their shoulders, I spent the following 20 years doing my best to live with increasingly debilitating chronic pain that affected my whole upper body. It limited my professional life significantly. Having gone freelance early-on to give me the flexibility to work how and when I could, I worked part-time hours, was careful not to take on too much and avoided jobs that would be too fiddly and computer-heavy. I tried various workstation set-ups, took lots of regular breaks, tried various forms of exercise and therapy.

Late twenty-teens:
By about 2018 though, things seemed to have hit a real low-point. The pain was getting worse and dominating my life more and more. I was taking bigger chunks of time off work between projects to recover and my personal life was getting narrower as I avoided more and more everyday situations that would cause me pain.

June 2019:
A chance comment on a Facebook thread about mindfulness apps led to a suggestion from Rachael Roberts that I take a look at Curable, an app aimed specifically at chronic pain sufferers. The results were pretty dramatic. It feels a bit silly to say that an app managed to ‘cure’ 20 years of pain in just a couple of weeks, but I think it was just the right thing at the right time and brought together a lot of ideas I’d been aware of for a while but hadn’t known how to act on. I won't go into the details, because we’d be here all day, but it basically centred around mindset and my attitude to pain. It didn’t fix my wonky shoulder, but I learnt how to turn the volume down on the pain that had started bouncing round my brain’s wiring out-of-control. I went from taking strong painkillers pretty much daily to maybe 3 or 4 times in 18 months.

Despite everything goin on in the world, 2020 on the whole was actually okay in terms of both my physical and mental health. After a fairly busy few months in the spring, work dropped off a cliff through the summer and I had 4 months with pretty much no work at all. Of course, it was all a bit worrying, but thankfully, I got government grants that kept me going financially and the weather was fabulous! My partner was out of work and being cooped up at home together wasn’t great, but with the good weather, we could use the garden as an extra room, there was lots of walking and gardening and we rubbed along fine.

Come the autumn, my work picked up again and I’ve been more-or-less flat-out since October – which is great, but maybe not so healthy. As the weather got worse, the days got shorter and my partner got more bored and despondent, I found myself spending longer stretches at my desk, avoiding leaving my office for my usual regular breaks because I didn’t want to be disturbed. By mid-December, I was getting tweaks in my shoulder. I partly put it down to the cold damp weather, but I knew that too much desk-time and increasing tension (mental tension leading to physical tension) were to blame too. By the end of the year, I was exhausted and at the end of my tether with no reserves of energy to draw on to do the clever, pain-subduing mind trick.

So far this year has been a tough slog; ploughing on with work, going out for fewer walks because I’m really feeling the cold in my joints, and feeling generally resentful and low. Thankfully, I know that I’ve always struggled with winter and I also know that I usually start perking up in March, so I’m hopeful that the advent of spring, along with the gradual easing of lockdown here in the UK will signal an upturn. I’m also just coming to the end of one work project and it looks like the next project I have pencilled in might be a bit delayed. So, I’m planning a much-needed week off. Of course, I won’t be able to go anywhere or do very much, but a bit more walking, perhaps a bit of pottering in the garden. If I can relax and recharge just a bit, then I think I can get my priorities back in perspective - even in these weirdly out-of-perspective times - and get my health back on track.

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Tuesday, February 23, 2021

Like searching for an idiom in the proverbial haystack

Recently, I've been doing quite a bit of research into idioms. It's lots of fun, just because idioms are the fun end of language, but it's also quite challenging from a corpus perspective, because idioms are slippery suckers!

In general, idioms pose two key problems for a corpus researcher:

1 Separating the figurative from the literal: so, for example, trying to get stats on how common the idiom 'an own goal' is – as in The PM scored a bit of a political own goal yesterday – you realize you also have a whole load of cites from football reporting about actual own goals. There's no real way of doing this apart from trawling through a sample of corpus lines to make a rough judgement about the percentage of figurative vs literal uses.

2 Dealing with variation: while a few idioms are completely fixed, most allow for a bit of variation and some are so variable as to be almost impossible to pin down.  For example, you might start off with "frighten the life out of someone" … then you realize that the verb scare is common too and actually there are some examples of terrify … then you look some more and find examples for frighten/ scare the (living/ absolute) shit /crap /hell /fuck /heck /daylights /piss /bejesus* out of someone! (*various spellings) All of which I only uncovered by trying out different search patterns, allowing for alternative verbs and gaps for things that get scared out of you.


Of course though, the more flexible you make your search, the more 'noise' you get – i.e. examples that aren't of the target idiom – so it's a bit of a balancing act with lots of trial and error.

Then yesterday, a chance comment in a TV programme threw up a whole new issue that I'd never considered – the use of the term 'the proverbial' which is kind of an idiom within an idiom! I scurried off to a corpus to check it out and found that:

It's mostly used before or within a complete idiom (often before a key noun). And notice it doesn't have to be what we'd typically think of as a proverb, it can go with any fixed, idiomatic expression, I think as a way of the speaker acknowledging that what they're saying is a bit of a cliché. (Click on the image to enlarge).


Perhaps more interestingly though, it can also be used to replace a key word within an idiom. This often seems to be a way for the speaker to avoid a taboo word (shown in red) – and so be polite – but not always (words in green):


It's a fabulous linguistic quirk and lots of fun to play around with, but wow, how the proverbial do you go about explaining that one to a poor learner?!

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Friday, February 12, 2021

Writing rhythms

On most ELT writing projects, the work (and your life for the duration of the project!) gets divided up into units. For a students' book, that might be 10-15 quite large units, but for many of the sort of self-study, language practice type materials I work on, there can be anywhere between 20 and 50 short units which may only be 2-4 pages each.

At the start of a new project, you spend a bit of time getting to grips with the brief and playing around with the first unit or two to establish how they're going to work. Often, the format's already quite fixed in the brief, sometimes you have a bit of leeway to play with. Then once everyone's happy, you get your head down and start ploughing through unit-by-unit.

What interests me is how different people go about tackling each unit. Do they sketch out the whole thing then go back and fill in the details? Do they do it on paper or straight into a Word doc? Do they start from the beginning and work through each activity in turn? Or do they start with a core component, such as a reading text, then work outwards from it? A lot, of course, depends on the type and scope of the material, but even within that there's quite a bit of room for variation.

For the past couple of months, I've been working on some self-study vocab practice materials. There are 50 units altogether (across two linked projects) which is kind of daunting, but also quite nice as it means I've settled into a rhythm of roughly a unit a day. For each unit, I already have a (more-or-less) predetermined set of vocab items to practise across a number of activities. It's heavily corpus-informed, so I'm researching the vocab items to pick out features to highlight (typical usage and context, collocations, typical colligational patterns, etc.) and also using and adapting corpus examples in the activities. For the first few units, this was my approach:


The major downside of this was that I found myself running the same corpus searches numerous times. So, I'd explore vocab item A extensively in the initial research stage, then I'd find myself searching for it again several times to source examples for each exercise. I revised my approach after a few units so that I still did my research stage as before, but then sketched out a rough plan of the different exercises, e.g. exercise 1 focus on noun collocations, exercise 2 focus on following prepositions, etc. Then I ran a corpus search for each vocab item and added examples to several of the exercises at the same time. This seemed more efficient and I settled into it as a way of working for the first 15 units or so.

As is so often the case though, totting up my hours regularly as I went along, I realized I was spending much longer on the work than I'd budgeted for up-front. That meant that because the project is for a fixed fee, my hourly rate was nose-diving. It also meant I was getting behind schedule. After a bit of a review and discussion, it turned out that a lot of the extra work was just down to there being more involved in the project than I'd originally bargained for – isn't it always the case?! With no more budget available though, I had to try and rein in my hours regardless. So I came up with a new way of working.

On the plus side, it is much quicker because I'm only researching each vocab item once, then just reshuffling the results to create the exercises. On the downside, I'm not able to wait until I've researched all the items to see how the unit's going to shape up. So, if you like, the whole process is slightly less data led. In some units, it works out fine and the examples I've selected shuffle neatly into nice, coherent exercises. Other times, I find that a feature or exercise type starts to suggest itself towards the end of the vocab list and I realize I haven't noted relevant examples for some of the earlier items. Then I either have to squeeze the material I have into exercises which aren't a great fit or I have to go back and look for better examples for some items. For some units, I use up most of the examples I've collected, for others I'm left with a whole page of unused material at the end.

So often, ELT writing is a balancing act between how you'd like to work and what the time and budget allows. In this case, the hurry-up initially felt a bit uncomfortable, but as I go on, I think I'm settling into my rhythm again and making it work.

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Friday, February 05, 2021

Motivation, mindset and guessing vocabulary from context

When it comes to ELT vocabulary, the idea of guessing the meaning of unknown words from context seems intuitively a useful strategy. However, its effectiveness both in terms of reading comprehension and how well it helps learners retain new vocabulary has been questioned – see this blogpost from Philip Kerr for a summary of some of the arguments. I just went back to reread it after something that happened yesterday.

Since my partner recently took Swiss citizenship (via his father), we've been receiving regular piles of paperwork from the canton in which he's registered. It's mostly to do with voting, either in referenda or local elections and is all in French. We both speak some French, but far from fluently.

A pile arrived yesterday and I was flicking through it, mostly just to practise my French as I waited for the kettle to boil on a tea break. There were three referenda questions, two of which I understood quite easily, the third I hesitated over. 


Image of red booklet with referendum question

It read: "l'interdiction de se dissumuler le visage." Which I read as "Prohibition/Ban on [reflexive verb which I don't recognize] the face." My first thought was it might be something to do with banning facial recognition software or something similar – it was about banning something to do with people's faces and based on my current world knowledge, that seemed like a logical guess. I read the first paragraph and it initially seemed to fit – it talked about the ban applying in public places such as in the street, on public transport, in sports stadiums, etc.

I still wasn't quite sure though, so I scanned through a bit more of the text. Then I came across a section about the arguments in favour of the ban and it said that "[the noun from the unknown verb] of the face in public spaces symbolises the oppression of women and is against the liberal spirit of living together/community cohesion". Aha! It was at that point that I realized that dissumuler means to conceal or hide or cover and that the question was about face-coverings – presumably in the sense of a niqab rather than a medical face mask (the irony of the timing wasn't lost on me!).

That aha moment was incredibly satisfying – perhaps an under-rated motivator in language learning? Or is that just me? It often strikes me that teachers and linguists, who are inherently fascinated by language for its own sake, may not be the best people to judge what works and what doesn't for the average language learner for whom learning a language may just be a means to an end. Does the average learner get that same sense of achievement from working out meaning? Would they have bothered to form a hypothesis then read on to check it in the way that I did or would they have just given up? It's hard to say and I'm sure it would differ enormously from student to student.

And of course, now I'm not going to be able to fairly judge whether my experience of guessing from context is going to help me retain the new vocab item either. Chances are I will just because I've done the diligent language-learner thing of processing and working with my new word by writing a blog post about it!

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Monday, November 30, 2020

A jobbing corpus linguist

In a Facebook corpus linguistics group I follow, someone recently posted the following question:

I immediately wanted to put my hand up and shout "Me! Me!" I excitedly typed a reply in the comments, but soon realized I had more to explain than I could realistically fit in, so I promised the poster a follow-up blog post. 

Getting started: 

So, how did I become a corpus linguist? Well, after about 7 years as a full-time EFL teacher, I realized the teaching lifestyle wasn't for me and I did an MA at Birmingham University. I already had an idea that dictionaries might be my thing – which was why I chose Birmingham as the home of COBUILD - and I took options in lexicography and corpus linguistics. 


I finished my MA in late 1998 at a time when there was a bit of a boom in ELT dictionaries. I was actually lucky enough to have interviews for in-house lexicography roles at three big ELT dictionary publishers within the space of a few months. I took a job at CUP – mostly because the timing worked out best – and was lucky enough to get stuck in straight away on the new, from-scratch Cambridge Learner's Dictionary (an intermediate-level dictionary). I learnt loads from my fabulous in-house colleagues and when I later went freelance, worked for the next 5 years or so on dictionaries for most of the major publishers (CUP, Longman, Macmillan, OUP, Chambers and eventually, many years later, Collins COBUILD). 

Broadening out: 

I worked on back-to-back lexicography projects through to around 2005. A few things then happened to send me off in different directions. Having worked with the Cambridge Learner Corpus when I was in-house (on dictionary error notes), I was asked by CUP to do some learner corpus research into common learner errors for their new Common Mistakes series of books. While doing the research, I realized I'd quite like to take the next step and write the material too, so ended up authoring two of the books in the series. After a long stretch of lexicography, it was nice to branch out into other things and I started working on more general ELT writing, initially alongside lexicography projects. Over the next few years, my focus shifted more towards writing – a shift that happened to coincide with a gradual decline in dictionary projects as several of the big publishers scaled back their dictionary operations. 


A mixed portfolio: 

Since then the mix of general writing and corpus-related work I do has varied year-to-year. I've done bursts of mainly writing, but always come back to corpus work. That's continued to include dictionaries and other reference projects, like Collins COBUILD Key Words series. I also do quite a lot of learner corpus research for CUP to feed into their ELT books. Sometimes that's just straightforward research investigating the issues made by a specific group of learners – mostly by level, but also by L1 – where I research to a brief and produce a report that goes to the authors. Frequently though, I do the research and also write the material, often in the form of notes and practice activities around specific learner issues. I had a look back over the past 3 years and my mix of work breaks down very roughly as below.

So, in answer to the original question, no, I don't have a job as such as a corpus linguist. I do, however, spend a large chunk of my working life using my corpus linguistic skills in some way or another. And even on the jobs I haven't classified as directly corpus research, I'm dipping in and out of corpora pretty much daily for almost everything I do.

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Tuesday, September 15, 2020

My coronacoaster II: underemployed and restless

Back at the end of May, I wrote about coming to the end of a stretch of work and not having anything more lined up as publishers froze projects and pulled work in-house. Since then, things have been kind of mixed.

Ups: On the plus side, I seem to have a number of projects lined up for the autumn. If everything comes off (which admittedly is far from guaranteed!) I should have a fairly steady stream of work from the end of Sept through into next spring. There’s a nice mix of projects; some corpus research and some writing, some vocab-focused materials and some more general English. It’s a relief to know there’s work coming up, although I’ll be happier when I get some more definite confirmations, schedules and contracts in place. As ever with freelancing, a lot of initial offers are tentative and it can seem to take an age before they’re confirmed, leaving you in an awkward planning limbo.

Downs: On the downside, it’s been a very quiet summer. Since the end of May, I had a few odd hours in July and August on one on-going project. Which was good – and a nice project to work on – but only added up to something like 25% of my usual working hours through June-Aug. That project’s had a (planned) pause since the middle of August and was due to start up again last week, but has now been delayed.

Restlessness: Like most freelancers, I’m not good at being underemployed. I can cope with the odd quiet patch if I know I’ve got something coming up, but especially with not much else to do at the moment (because Covid), I soon get restless and grouchy. Thankfully, the UK’s had a surprisingly good summer this year which has made things a bit easier. When the weather’s warm and sunny, it’s easier to potter in and out of the garden, go for nice long walks and as things have eased up, meet friends for socially-distanced, outdoor coffees. Last week was tough though. First, I had the let-down of expecting work to restart then finding out it wasn’t. Plus the weather was rubbish – grey and rainy and positively autumnal. I’m generally pretty good at keeping myself occupied, but after more than 6 months at home, I admit to getting distinctly bored. I’ve done plenty of walking, but as I don’t have a car, I’m tied to only walking from home and having done the same routes a thousand times, I’m really starting to crave a change of scene now.

Time for a break: Thankfully, this week, the sun’s back out and on Friday, we’re heading off for a week away – woo hoo! - our first holiday for a year and my first night away from home since February. We’re not going very far, just a week in a holiday cottage on the Isle of Wight, but it’s right by the sea and I’m sooo looking forward to just being somewhere different.

So I just have a handful of days to get through feeling restless, unsure whether there’ll be any work this week or not, and not 100% confident that the projects I have pencilled in for when I get back will pan out as I’m hoping. It feels a bit odd to be taking a holiday after doing so little work over the past few months, but boy, am I ready for it and the chance to properly switch off.

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Tuesday, August 04, 2020

Reviewing in ELT publishing

Over the past few weeks, I've been reviewing materials – it's one of those jobs within ELT publishing that doesn't get talked about much, but which can be surprisingly satisfying and useful for career development … whatever stage of your career you're at.

By reviewing, I'm not talking about writing book reviews of already published materials, I'm referring to work that goes on before publication.  Draft materials are sent out to reviewers to get feedback on as part of the process of development. Exactly who, how and when will vary depending on the type of title and also depending on the publisher and publishing schedule. I can only talk about the reviewing I've experienced both as a reviewer and as a writer on the receiving end of reviewers' feedback.

What is the job of a reviewer?
The first thing to say is that reviewers are not editors. Editors work closely with writers to help develop the content, the format, the style and then along the line, to nit-pick the details and polish up the manuscript. Reviewers, on the other hand, are much more at arm's length and provide an outside perspective on the material.

Often in ELT, reviewers will be practising teachers working in the target market(s) for the book who are ideally placed to comment on how well the materials are likely to work with their students. They may pick up on issues that would never have occurred to the writers or editorial staff. Reviewers can also be specialists in a particular area brought in to assess the material from a specific angle. I've acted as a specialist reviewer looking at vocabulary using my corpus skills, at content designed to teach academic skills or at whether material hits the mark preparing students for a particular exam. From a slightly different angle, I've also written reviews of published material for publishers who are planning new editions and thinking about what to change.

The number and type of reviewers will vary as will the stage at which they review the material and how much they're asked to look at. Reviewing may be a one-off process or it may be repeated. And how much of what the reviewer says will reach the authors will vary too. As a writer, I've had instances where the full reviewer's report was sent to me directly, but more often it's been filtered through an editor.  And of course, the feedback that comes from different reviewers is often wildly contradictory, but that's a subject for another day!

What makes a good reviewer?
When a publisher asks someone to review material, they will typically provide a fairly detailed brief, often a set of specific questions that they'd like the reviewer to answer. They're not looking for a long rambling report on what you think of the material in general and what they definitely don't want is a list of typos and suggestions for better wording! A good reviewer addresses the specific issues they've been asked to look at, giving clear explanations, reasons and examples to back up the points they make – including, if possible, both positive and negative points. Of course, the writer/publisher wants to know about any potential problems with the material, but they also want feedback on what you like, what you think your students will like or what will work well in the classroom. There will often be space for extra comments outside of the target questions, but here the key is to be selective. Comment on those things that really stand out and seem significant, don't get caught up in minor details – which, after all, might change anyway in the edit.

Why review?
Reviewing may not be the glamorous end of the publishing process – if you're lucky, you'll get your name in a tiny credit on the back page – but it can be surprisingly rewarding.

For teachers hoping to get into ELT writing, it's one way to get a foot in the publishing door. It's a way to build up contacts and being seen to produce a professional, well-informed report, to brief and on time is a good starting point for putting yourself forward for other work. More importantly, though, I think it's a good way to gain insight into the publishing process. The kind of questions that the publisher asks can give you an insight into the concerns and considerations around published ELT materials that may not be the same as those for materials you create for your own classes.

For me though, the most useful part of being a reviewer, whether you’re a newbie or have been writing for 20 years, is the process of reading someone else's material and really thinking about how it works. You don't just look for what works and what doesn't on an intuitive level, but you have to think about why and how you're going to explain that. It makes you realize just how many different balls an ELT writer is trying to juggle all at the same time … how language works, how learners learn language, skills, vocab, grammar, pronunciation, what's interesting and engaging, what's motivating, what works in the classroom, in one context or across different contexts, authenticity, consistency, adaptability, level, age, education systems, learners' aims, exams and testing, diversity and inclusivity, what will be approved by ministries of education, what will sell, timing, layout, page fit, different media, permissions … And of course, it's not surprising that sometimes they're going to drop some of those balls!

Recently, I've been lucky enough to be involved in reviewing some new materials on an on-going basis, looking at each unit as it's written. The material is by some very experienced authors for whom I have a lot of respect. Lots of things are pretty much as I'd have done them myself, but I'm always coming across stuff that I wouldn't necessarily have thought of – clever little additions or approaches that work really well to address a particular issue, that I'm mentally filing away to use myself at some point in the future. And of course, there are also the things that don't quite work, or more often, that are just missing, which mean I have to stop and think about how to explain, to justify, to exemplify my feedback. Sometimes I start to add something to my report then delete it because I decide it's not important or that actually something that comes later overrides my point. Sometimes, a point that initially seems quite minor makes me realize there's actually a wider issue to be addressed.

All in all, reviewing can be a fascinating process to be involved in and for me, it's a really valuable part of my working mix.

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