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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