Lexicoblog

The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Thursday, January 04, 2018

Using a corpus to fish for inspiration



When I think about using corpus tools to help in writing ELT materials, I tend to think of checking details. So I’ll often use a corpus to check the most common form of a word or phrase, or a typical collocation or colligation pattern. An example that cropped up on Facebook yesterday was whether we say “in winter” or “in the winter” (the answer, by the way, seems to be we use both, sometimes interchangeably and sometimes in different contexts). Today though, I’ve been using a corpus in a slightly different way for much more general inspiration.

I’m currently working on some grammar practice materials and one of the grammar points I need to cover is “compound future tenses” (will have done, will be doing, will have been doing). They’re supplementary materials and part of the brief is to choose different topics and contexts from those used in the student’s book. Of course, the SB author has already nabbed perhaps the most obvious context; predictions about life in the future (By 2050, we’ll all be travelling in driverless cars, etc.). I was casting about for an alternative angle and drawing a blank, so I turned to a corpus*. 

Corpora aren’t always ideal when it comes to grammar because it’s difficult to be specific in your searches. Yes, you can use grammar tags to search for particular word forms, but many common forms have so many different uses that what comes up is often too broad to be useful in an ELT context (imagine how many different uses you’d find if you searched for all present continuous verb forms, for example). When you can narrow things down to more specific words or combinations though, you can uncover some more useful results. So here, I ran a quick series of searches:

will have + past participle
will be + present participle
will have been + present participle

Up came a whole load of contexts which I’d probably never have thought of off the top of my head. And interestingly, a lot of them actually referred to the near future rather than distant futuristic predictions. A couple of the recurrent themes I spotted were:


Weather forecasts:
By 6 o’clock, the showers will have passed.
By Wednesday morning, the winds will be dying down.
The storm will have reached the coast of Cuba by early next week.

Sports reporting:
The team will have played nine games in four weeks.
She’ll be competing in three events at the upcoming Winter Olympics.
The coaching staff will have been preparing the players all winter.

I may not end up using the exact examples turned up by the corpus, but they’ve provided some much-needed inspiration and sent me off down some potentially useful paths.


*When you’re just fishing for inspiration, I don’t think it matters quite so much which corpus you use. For these searches, I used the Monco corpus, just because it’s what I’d been using recently and as a continuously-updated news-based corpus, it throws up a range of current topics.

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Wednesday, December 27, 2017

2017 Part 2: What’s next?



In my last post, I talked about some of the reasons why I’ve become frustrated with my work in ELT publishing and started to question where I want to go next. In this post, I want to share some of the thoughts that have been floating around my head, in no particular order, about what I can do to change that.

One of the first questions I’ve had to face is whether I still enjoy working in ELT at all. And you’ll be pleased to hear that the answer is essentially yes. When I’m not getting frustrated dealing with fees and schedules and restrictive briefs, and it’s just me and a Word document and a load of language, then yes, I still love it. What’s not to love about playing with words for a living? The task ahead, then, seems to be one of picking the right projects or as Tania Pattison put it in her recent blog post, taking on projects that “fit with your vision of yourself as a writer” … which is perhaps easier said than done!

Having started off as a lexicographer, I’m still at my happiest using a corpus to tease out how language works. I really could happily spend all my time investigating how words fit together; making lists of collocations and phrases and colligations and dependent prepositions and explaining all the subtle and quirky differences between them. That should equate to writing vocab materials, but having done a lot of that in recent years, I know it’s not always as satisfying as I’d like. The briefs for many vocab projects involve a pre-determined syllabus and format, and an infuriating reliance on wordlists which take no account of chunks and phrases and multiple meanings or the difference between receptive and productive lexis*. And you find yourself being told that you can’t use a word because it’s ‘above level’ or been ‘covered’ before or … any number of other completely nonsensical reasons why you can’t do what you know is pedagogically sound.

Which perhaps leads me naturally to think about breaking away from publishers to go it alone. Several people I’ve spoken to have talked about self-publishing as an alternative. It does have a certain appeal, but from what I’ve heard of others’ experiences, self-publishing involves a huge amount of investment of both time and money, for very little return. You simply don’t make money from self-published materials. And whilst I’m not only in it for the money, this is my job and I do need to pay the mortgage. From a practical point of view, that means either writing something quite small in scope, like the How to Write EAP Materials title I did for ELT T2W, or stretching work on a bigger project out over a longer period of time, squeezing in bits and pieces when I can. I do have a few half-ideas floating around, but nothing fully formed and ready-to-go just yet.

Another option is to more actively push for the types of work I enjoy most … again, not always easy. A few of my ‘big breaks’ and changes of direction have come from proactively pushing. My first book (Common Mistakes at Proficiency) came about because I was doing corpus research for the series and I summoned up the courage to ask the editor if they had authors for all the titles. They hadn’t and she asked if I’d like to write one of them. Other work has come, either directly or indirectly, from chatting to the right people at conferences. A huge amount is down to luck and timing, but sometimes going along to the right events and making your interest in a specific area well known can help. To this end, I’ve started to nudge myself in a couple of directions …

Firstly, I’ve realized that one of the things I enjoy most is messing about with a corpus. Sadly though, it’s something that only rarely do I get paid to do. So I’ve started to edge my way a bit more into the corpus linguistics world. Back in October, I went along to a Corpus Linguistics in the South event in Cambridge. Most of the people there were academics talking about their research, but there are a few other folks who bridge the gap between the academic and the commercial. I haven’t yet spotted an obvious opportunity for work beyond what I’ve already been involved in, but I’m enjoying getting back into the academic side of the discipline and you never know what might crop up. I’m planning to put a proposal in for at least one corpus linguistics conference in 2018, so we’ll see where that leads.

Another aim is to get away from my desk a bit more. Most years, I manage to go to a handful of conferences and events, either as a participant or a speaker, and I generally come back feeling energised and having learnt something new, about a different teaching context or a different area of ELT. Unfortunately, unless I can get sponsored by a publisher to do a talk on their behalf, the costs come out of my own pocket, and with lots of conferences expecting speakers to pay a conference fee as well as their travel expenses, that soon becomes unaffordable. One option I’d like to explore more though is doing more teacher training. I love getting to meet and work with teachers from different places and, as well as being fun, it feeds neatly back into my writing. I recently ran a teacher training workshop in Moscow, which I really enjoyed, and I’ll be looking out for more similar opportunities in the year ahead.


So I guess that’s a few leads to be getting on with, nothing radical and no magic bullet solution, but hopefully, a general push into slightly new directions for 2018.


*I'll be talking about wordlists and their (mis)use in ELT publishing at the IATEFL conference in Brighton in April.

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Wednesday, December 20, 2017

2017 Part 1: Decisions, decisions ...



This time last year, I was getting stuck into the first assignments of an MA in Forensic Linguistics and, to be honest, I was ready to turn my back on ELT for a new career in language and the law. A few months on though and I realized that maybe the career path towards being a forensic linguist wasn’t the right one for me (for all kinds of reasons) and so, after lots of thought and a very intense week in Porto grilling as many forensic linguists as I could manage to collar, I decided to cut my losses and left the course.

This left me feeling slightly broke and at somewhat of a professional loose end. At around about the same time, my partner was also made redundant from his job of 10 years, so we decided to take the opportunity to have a good long break and do a bit of travelling. We headed off for a month travelling first to Belize where we trekked through unspoilt rainforest, tried to stay cool in 40°C heat and I found myself shooing tarantulas out the bathroom! Then it was onto Mexico to explore ancient Mayan ruins and marvel at the noise and colour of Mexico City. It provided the perfect antidote to worrying about work and career for a few weeks and gave me a chance to properly recharge my batteries.


I came back to a flurry of new (ELT writing) work – projects I’d managed to put off ‘until I get back’, but which then suddenly turned out to be way too much to fit into my schedule! In many ways, it was a good thing, because my bank balance seriously needed topping up and while I was busy working towards one deadline after another, I didn’t have time to dwell on the big “what next?” question.

After 7 months of working flat-out, long hours, weekends, lots of negotiating of new schedules and extended deadlines because there just weren’t enough hours in the day or days in the week, I was absolutely shattered! So last week, I took some time off and went away for a ‘reading retreat’; a week in a country cottage, holed up with a pile of ELT stuff to read. It was also a chance to step back and think about where I want to go next.

So, I guess the first question to deal with is why I wanted to move away from ELT in the first place. I’ve been working in the field for some 25 years now and for the past 17 as a freelance writer.  Being freelance has given me the freedom to explore different areas – lexicography, writing, editing, corpus research, vocab, EAP, teacher training. As a freelancer though, while my career has morphed and changed, and along the way, I’ve achieved several goals (authoring a number of books, travelling to various countries, giving a plenary at a conference, etc.), there’s no formalized career progression. I feel that I’ve moved on enormously over the years, my knowledge, experience and expertise have continued to grow, but the work I often find myself doing – and the rates I get paid for it – don’t necessarily reflect that. 

Recently, I’ve started to feel frustrated and undervalued, not so much by the ELT world in general, but specifically by the people I work for. Of course, there have always been good projects and less good projects, editors who make you feel valued and those who just drive you round the bend. In general though, my sense is that I’m spending more and more of my time haggling over fees, being asked to work to unfeasible schedules, being messed around with delays and uncertainty, having briefs changed halfway through projects and, as I mentioned in a recent post, getting less and less creative control. I’m sure a lot of that is down to me getting older and wiser and having higher expectations, but I don’t think it’s just me. The whole industry seems to be going through a difficult time, readjusting to new realities and not always managing to do so very smoothly. And I’m well aware that it’s not just the freelancers who are feeling the strain. Many of the big publishers have undergone restructuring and job losses in the past few years, so I know that many of the people I’m working with in-house have been having a rough time of it too.

So what’s the answer? Where do I go next? Do I look for another alternative career? Do I just plod on and hope that things improve? Or is there a way that I can stay within ELT, but steer my career down a more satisfying path?

The first option probably isn’t going to happen. After my foray into Forensic Linguistics, I’ve realized that at this stage in my life, I can’t really afford to make a completely fresh start, either financially or in terms of time … although if the right inspiration or opportunity came along, I’m not totally ruling it out!

The second option just isn’t in my nature, at least not in the long term.

Which leaves me looking for new inspiration in ELT … a topic which will have to spill over into another post …

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