The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, October 14, 2013

Get ahead, get a thesaurus

I don’t usually use my blog to ‘plug’ products I’ve worked on, but a couple of things lately have prompted me to think again about a book I was involved with a few years back.  During my recent trip to Munich, a teacher came up to me in the break and asked if I ever recommend a thesaurus to my students. I started to tell her about the Oxford Learner’s Thesaurus … only to find that she was already a convert and couldn’t understand why it doesn’t have a higher profile.

The OLT has the usual sets of synonyms you’d expect in a thesaurus, but it also has lots of information for learners to help them understand what each of the words means and, more importantly, where their meanings overlap and how they’re different. It was one of my favourite ever projects to work on – I spent months and months poring over sets of synonyms and trying to tease out all the subtle differences … language nerd paradise!

Anyway, I think it’s a great book, especially for more advanced learners, like the EAP students I teach. They really need to vary their vocabulary, especially when they’re writing longer pieces, to avoid just repeating the same old words and expressions time and again. Letting them loose on an ordinary NS thesaurus though can be a bit of a recipe for disaster as they come up with all kinds of inappropriate substitutions!

I generally try to introduce my classes to the OLT, usually via an example that’s cropped up in class, and encourage them to try it out as a resource.   I even managed to squeeze it into my most recent project; OxfordEAP C1/Advanced  in a module on synonyms (p. 070 if you’ve got a copy).

But I also use it quite a bit as a reference myself both when I’m teaching and when I’m writing. Which brings me onto the second prompt for this blog post … I’ve read a few interesting things on hedging in EAP lately (from Nathan Hall and Ken Paterson -  looking forward to his webinar on hedging tomorrow), which for those of you not familiar with the term, is the way we use language to show how confident (or otherwise) we are about what we’re saying, or to be more EAP about it, to moderate the strength of the claims we’re making. A lot of work on hedging tends to focus on modals (could, might, would), so-called hedging verbs (appear, seem, tend),  adverbs (possibly, perhaps, relatively, significantly) and a few other adverbial expressions (to some extent, on balance). But writers also convey a lot about their stance and evaluation of ideas through their choice of other vocabulary too.

Consider the difference between:
The effectiveness of the programme has been queried/questioned/disputed/criticized/attacked.

It’s an area that you’d probably only tackle explicitly with pretty advanced students, but it’s worth being aware of and picking up on when it crops up (as is the nature of much language work in EAP).  Anyway, when I wanted to include some work on this in Oxford EAP, it was OLT I turned to in search of ideas for the practice exercises (p. 143). Lots of sets of synonyms vary in strength, so when you’re deciding which word to use to express a particular idea, you might make your choice based on how confident or tentative you want to come across as … that’s hedging too.

I'd be interested to hear whether other people use a thesaurus (or the thesaurus facility of some of the learner's dictionaries) - either with their students or for their own reference?

Labels: , , , ,


Post a Comment

<< Home