The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

Monday, July 25, 2022

Disability Pride month: writing with one arm behind your back

July is disability pride month and at the start of the month, I attended a webinar by the Authors with Disabilities and Chronic Illnesses (ADCI) group of the Society of Authors. At the time, I was laid low with Covid, but it provided lots of food for thought and I’ve been mulling it over since.

My situation

I don’t think of myself as having a disability, but I have been living – and working – with chronic pain for more than 20 years. It’s something I’ve written about previously and how it affects my ability to work. A few years ago, it was really debilitating with constant pain throughout my upper body that left me struggling with even the basics of life. As is common with chronic pain sufferers, the pain volume control on my nervous system had got turned right up to the max.

Thankfully, over the past few years, I’ve got my condition much more under control and have dialled things back to just the site of my original injury – a dislocated right collarbone. I now spend a lot of my time pain-free and the pains I do experience are localized and often no more than passing tweaks and twinges.  However, whilst things are hugely better than they were, I’ve discovered that I still need to operate within certain limits. Last year, I started on a new project that involved quite focused, detailed sort of work. It didn’t take long for my pains to flare up again quite badly and I realized I couldn’t overdo things. After a few weeks, I reduced the number of hours I was working and things settled down again. Since then, I’ve been working 15 hours a week on my main project, with a handful of extra hours on admin and other small projects, up to a maximum of 20 hours a week. And that seems to be a comfortable, sustainable level.

It's great to have found a balance that works, but I’m aware that as a freelancer, it’s not always easy to guarantee a regular workflow at the same level and, beyond my current project, I’ll be back to trying to take on enough work without overloading myself physically. And of course, part-time hours also means a part-time income. I probably earn around 60% of what I could if I was able to work full time, which brings me down to well below the average income in the UK – although not low enough to be eligible for any kind of support.

Inclusion and access

Getting back to the webinar, one of the key topics of discussion was inclusion of those with disabilities and chronic illnesses within the publishing industry in general and more specifically what can be done to improve accessibility for writers. One speaker talked about the use of accessibility riders – a document that sets out someone’s accessibility needs at the start of a contract. It’s a really interesting idea and one that’s backed up legally in the UK by the 2010 Equality Act. Of course, it’s relatively easy to imagine the kind of adaptations an employer might make for an employee who, for example, was a wheelchair user and needed ramps or an adapted desk setup. What’s less straightforward is the kind of adjustments needed for people with invisible disabilities and chronic conditions. And of course, once you get into the freelance realm, the responsibilities of those you work for become much more of a grey area.

In my own case, the practical adaptations needed are not obvious. For several years when I was first diagnosed, I tried using voice recognition software to avoid too much keyboard use. It was something that publishers didn’t have a problem with and even supported; in part because I had my own software, so it didn’t require any input from them! I remember one publisher even inviting me into the office to give a demo and taking a real interest in how it worked. However, I gradually realized that keyboard use isn’t actually an issue for me, it’s navigating and formatting with a mouse that causes me pain. You can navigate using voice software but it’s really tricky and frustrating, so I eventually gave up. I’ve tried a whole variety of different devices and settled on a combination of a graphics tablet which I use with my left hand and a regular mouse which is just better for certain tasks and which I use (sparingly) with my right. That means that I try to avoid tasks with lots of fiddly formatting, including lots of work on digital materials which tend to have annoyingly mouse-heavy templates or authoring software.  

Back in the days of working in a headset with increasingly frustrated cries of "scratch that" and "undo that" coming from my office!

Perhaps more significant for me though is the amount of work I can manage. As I said above, 15-20 hours a week seems to be sustainable and those hours need to be evenly spaced, not bunched up into short intensive bursts. Does that mean that I just have to put up with a lower income? Would it be reasonable to ask to be paid for hours I’m not able to work in the name of equity? Perhaps where there should be more flexibility is with workload. Ruling someone out of a project because they’re not able to work a lot of hours in a short period is surely discrimination.  It’s sometimes possible to negotiate taking on a smaller chunk of a writing project, but not always. And of course, taking on a smaller chunk of work means accepting a smaller fee and the inevitable gaps between lots of short projects which is harder to manage, means more admin and is financially loss-making. Spreading a piece of work over a longer timescale would be a better solution all round but would require changes in scheduling and longer deadlines. That should be perfectly possible in publishing, but often doesn’t happen because of poor planning and squeezed schedules. It’s a source of frustration for most freelancers, for me it’s either a source of pain, or more likely, rules me out of work.


Should I be more transparent about my condition? Should I have an accessibility rider setting out what I can manage and what adjustments I might need? I certainly don’t keep my health a secret and many editors who I’ve worked with over the years know about my situation; although they don’t always fully understand the implications. I know of well-meaning editors who haven’t offered me work on projects because they thought it would be hard on me physically, when actually it would’ve been fine. Especially with the ups and downs of a chronic condition, they may have dealt with me at a time when I was really struggling and had to cut back or pull out of something and assume that the same applies going forward. That’s especially problematic given the big improvements I’ve seen in recent years. And of course, I don't know how many editors have just chosen not to offer me future work because they thought my health limitations would just be too much trouble ...

And I don’t always mention my health and its limitations.  In part, that’s a conscious decision. The changes I’ve made to control my condition recently have largely been about mindset and a mind-body approach to pain control. In short, I’ve shifted my mental focus away from the pain and stopped letting it define my life. So, I don’t want to have to keep making an issue of it in a work context. If I don’t anticipate something being problematic, there seems no need. So sometimes “availability” just ends up doing a lot of heavy lifting. When I say that I don’t have enough availability to take on a job, I’m sure people assume I have a packed schedule, when in reality, they’re often just asking for more hours than I can comfortably commit to, even with a completely empty schedule.

The ADCI webinar brought up many other issues, some relevant to my own situation, some less so. There’s the issue of variability for those with chronic conditions, managing work through good days and bad days, good patches and bad patches, good energy levels and dips - and how that affects schedules and deadlines. There’s the concept known within the community as ‘spoons’, something I could really relate to when my condition was at its worst, which you can read about here if you’re interested. And then there’s representation of people with disabilities and chronic conditions in what we write, including in ELT materials. But that’s a topic for another day, I think.

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Wednesday, June 15, 2022

Lexicography FAQs: how it looks from here

Yesterday, I was chatting to a couple of ELT friends and they were asking me what a lexicographer actually does, day-to-day and how we create dictionary entries. It's a question I get asked a lot in different forms. So here's a very quick run-down of what my work routine actually looks like.

📃 I get sent a list of words to work on in a spreadsheet. It will depend on the project as to whether they're words that need completely new entries created or are words with existing entries to be revised or added to.

🔍 If I'm creating new entries for words that aren't already in the dictionary I'm working on, for whatever reason, I start off with a corpus search. I use the (publisher's own) corpus to research how the word is used and pin down the meaning - or meanings. For some words, the corpus data will give me enough information to come up with a definition, for more "difficult" words, I might refer to other resources to get my head around it - see my post here about hard words.

For reasons of confidentiality, this is not a screenshot of a publisher's corpus - it's the Timestamped JSI web corpus accessed using my personal account - but it uses the same Sketch Engine software we generally work with

⌨️ Then I go into an app called Entry Editor where I actually create the entry. This is a mock-up entry I just created. As you can see, there are several panels. The one on the right is where I type in the various bits of information needed to create a dictionary entry, all structured within tags. So, you can see at the top, the headword, the word that appears at the top of the entry. Below that is all the stuff about part of speech, grammar labels, regional and usage labels, spelling variants, etc. There are also spaces for the IPA pronunciations which I don't fill in, these get added later by a pron specialist. Then underneath that you have the definition and then example sentences.

Click to enlarge

✏️ The definitions in learner's dictionaries are written using what's known as a DV or defining vocabulary. This is a list of (high frequency) words that as lexicographers we're "allowed" to use in definitions in order to make sure that the defs are as clear and simple as possible. Each project will have a slightly different DV (put together by the publisher) and slightly different rules about how to deal with words that really can't be defined without using non-DV words.

🔍 After I've composed and entered the definition, then I'll fill in the other information using the corpus. Can I see that the word's mostly used in American sources? If it's a noun, is it used countably, uncountably or both? Is it usually one word or two words or hyphenated? (I'll use corpus stats to decide and add spelling variants as necessary.) Then I look at the patterns the word's typically used in - collocations, typical subjects/objects, colligation, etc. - and try to choose corpus examples that reflect the most typical uses. How many examples get added will depend to a degree on the frequency of the word (common words will typically get more examples than low-frequency ones) and the guidelines for the particular project. And example sentences will also get slightly edited to comply with corpus permissions (i.e. to make them unidentifiable) and to make them work as stand-alone sentences of an appropriate length. Then I'll add any extra bits as needed for the particular project, such as synonyms, antonyms, cross-references, usage notes, etc.

📄 As I add text to the right-hand panel, it comes up in WYSIWYG form in the centre panel. This is useful to read through the entry in a slightly more readable form to check that everything looks okay and reads well before I save it and upload it to the publisher's database.

✅ And that's it, when I've finished one entry, I upload it and move onto the next word on my list. Harmless drudgery, but often fascinating and sometimes head-scratchingly challenging in a way that keeps a word nerd like me happy.

Footnote: scribblynonsense will, perhaps sadly, not be appearing in a dictionary anytime soon. I did check to see if I could find any corpus evidence for it, but I couldn't find a single example, so I deleted the entry without uploading it

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Tuesday, May 31, 2022

Let's jump on a call ... and other downplaying verbs

With my partner working from home a couple of days a week nowadays, I can’t help but overhear a lot of the “office speak” that I usually miss out on. He spends a lot of his time chatting to colleagues via Teams and several times I’ve heard him and others talking about “jumping on a call”, to mean having a video call. It caught my attention, not least because it seems to be another potential addition to a set of ‘downplaying’ verbs that interest me. 

So, I did a corpus search (using the Timestamped JSI web corpus 2014-2021 via SketchEngine) for “jump on” and found an interesting collection of direct object collocations that seem to fall into fairly clear sets: 

Heading: jump on. Image of four circles, in the top on the text reads "physical leap, jump on a trampoline, a bed, the table, downward arrows to two circles, the one directly below, text reads: quick movement, jump on a train/bus, a bike, a plane/flight; another circle slightly to the right, text reads: seize a chance, jump on the bandwagon, opportunity/chance, an idea, downwards arrow in line with 'quick movement' to bottom circle, text reads: communications, jump on Twitter.instagram/a call, social media. Final text box with arrows to quick movement and communications circles text reads: downplaying, quick, easy, no effort
Click to enlarge

Starting with the most literal sense, there were quite a few examples of people (and animals) physically jumping on(to) things: 

children playing outside and jumping on the trampoline
My son broke his elbow a couple of months ago after jumping on his bed
Look who learned to jump on the table!
[of a cat] 

As on offshoot, there’s a whole set of expressions to do with seizing an opportunity, the most frequent of which is the idiom jump on the bandwagon. You can jump on an opportunity or chance – take it while it’s available. And journalists, politicians and media commentators generally sometimes jump on a story or some news – they eagerly take the opportunity to talk/write about it because it's interesting or controversial, etc. But for today, I want to leave this offshoot to one side. 

Getting back to movement, there was an overlap between the literal and slightly more metaphorical when it comes to transport. If we say that someone jumps on a bus or a train or a flight, we probably don’t quite visualize them leaping. Instead, the use of the verb jump here, rather than the more neutral get or catch, suggests that the journey was easy and quick and no trouble at all. It’s the kind of verb you use when you’re trying to downplay the effort or inconvenience involved. For example, if someone offers you a lift home and you tell them not to worry, you’ll just jump on the bus. 

Jumping on a train to the airport is a given in many cities
You know, not everyone can jump on a plane and come to New York
I could jump on my bike and be in the city in two-and-a-half minutes. 

The communications contexts seem to follow on from this idea of doing something quickly and easily. When it’s a video call, it seems to have the connotation that it will be easy to set up, won’t take up too much time, and will all round perhaps be much easier than it used to be arranging face-to-face meetings. 

If you have questions […] we're happy to jump on a Zoom call
Then I jump on work calls at about 7.15am.
Shall we jump on a quick video call

Both the transport and video call senses emphasize ease and downplay effort or inconvenience. Which is what makes me think that jump (on) may be a candidate for a group of verbs that include nip, pop and grab, that we use to downplay actions. 

I’m just … nipping out/popping to the shop/going to grab a coffee.
Can you just … nip down to reception/pop your PIN number in/grab me some sugar? 

Interestingly, if you jump on social media, there seems to be an overlap between ease/speed/convenience and the journalistic sense of jumping on a news story, in that you’re quick to voice your (often critical) opinion: 

On Friday she jumped on Twitter to insist her words had been taken "out of context"
Chelsea fans were quick to jump on social media to condemn […] for his stamp last weekend.
She jumped on Instagram this afternoon to deliver an update on the project. 

Right, I’m just going to pop this post on my blog and then jump on social media to share it. Feel free to pop any thoughts in the comments.

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

Researching phrasal verbs: showing my workings

This is kind of the post behind the post. I recently wrote a post for the Collins ELT blog about how we updated the new edition of Work on Your Phrasal Verbs. I was asked to make it a short, simple post for a wide audience. You can read the post here - it summarizes the key changes in terms of updating the phrasal verbs we included to reflect current usage (we changed around 10% of the PV list) and also how we reworked the design to include more space for practice activities.  What the post doesn’t have space for is explaining how we did that. So, I thought I’d write this post-behind-the-post to give those of you who like that kind of thing a few more of the nerdy details.

Updating the PV list was a fairly straightforward case of checking the current corpus frequencies of the PVs in the first edition and highlighting any that had declined in usage. I say “straightforward” – actually checking the frequency of phrasal verbs is far from straightforward, but I’m not going to get into that here! Then the Collins corpus team generated a list of possible new additions based on the most high-frequency PVs that weren’t included in the first edition. I checked the most likely candidates manually, chose suitable options, and we worked out how to shuffle things around to fit the new additions into the themed units to replace those we’d dropped.

When we were initially reviewing the first edition, I'd highlighted the fact that most of the existing practice activities focused on the basic meaning of the PVs, so a largely receptive focus. With an extra page per unit for new activities, I suggested we could use the space to build on the receptive/meaning-focused exercises by adding new ones that looked more at the kind of things learners need to know to use PVs productively. For me, it was this bit that turned out to be the most interesting part of the project as I got to do original corpus research, then put it directly into practice.

In my Collins post, I pick out four main areas we focused on – and I also made some pretty graphics around them for an instagram post which I’m going to unapologetically reuse!

Typical Collocations:

This is a biggie because collocations are not only important for using language in a way that sounds natural - and produces predictable combinations of words that readers and listeners will expect and not ‘trip over’ – but collocations such as typical subjects and objects also tell you a huge amount about how and where the target PV is typically used. Is it used to talk about serious or fairly frivolous topics? Are the subjects positive or negative things? What types of people do this thing? Is it informal and conversational or something more likely to crop up in business communications or journalism?

Here are some of the pages and pages of notes I made as I researched each PV.

You can see very clearly that, in terms of typical objects, we drop off both objects and people:


For intransitive PVs, the subjects are obviously more interesting, like here at (not) add up:


Or here you can see what kinds of people tend to step down:


For ditransitive verbs, like remind sb of sth, I looked at both the direct and indirect objects:

And sometimes I noted down both subjects and objects as worth highlighting, such as here you can see who lays off who:


But it’s not just about the nouns. There are the adverbs too that you can see above with step down immediately/voluntarily and not really add up. Or even the quantifiers, lay off a lot of/hundreds of .

I used all this mass of information to create activities that focus specifically on collocation, like the one above, but I also tried to include the strongest collocates of each PV throughout the unit, including them in examples where they weren’t the main focus.

Colligation patterns:

These are the grammatical patterns that PVs tend to be used in. At the simplest level, do you carry on read, carry on to read or carry on reading? While scrolling through corpus lines, I often found myself noting down following patterns, some of them simple, like a following -ing form or a wh- clause as above. Some like at make up for were more complex, taking in direct objects, -ing forms, wh- clauses and also a passive plus preposition combo (be made up for in …) and a preceding phrase (more than made up for …)


Other common preceding patterns I noted included modals and other introductory verbs (do they have a name?), like try to, fail to, go and

Again, some of these made their way into explicit exercises highlighting the patterns, often matching sentence halves, while others just loitered in general examples, building the picture for students of typical usage in the background.


Slightly confusingly for learners, phrasal verbs often co-occur with specific prepositions that aren’t strictly part of the phrasal verb itself, because they’re optional or vary depending on what follows. They’re at the niggly, detailed end of language learning, but they can make a real difference to how language flows and to how listeners/readers are able to process a sentence. Imagine you read “They fell out with …”, you expect what follows to be a person, not an issue and if it isn’t, you hesitate, maybe reread, wonder if you’ve understood correctly.

Word order:

All of the above categories apply to almost any type of word, but this last issue is uniquely phrasal-verby. ELT materials commonly teach about the difference between separable and inseparable phrasal verbs, often in a one-off section, but once students have grasped the concept, they need to know how it applies to specific PVs they come across. Does the object always appear between the verb and the particle or always after the particle? If both are possible, is there a tendency one way or the other? Can a PV only be split by a pronoun or are there other pronoun-like words that can go in-between, like everyone, things, etc.?

As you can see, I had hours of nerdy fun researching all this stuff which I then tried to cram into a few short pages. I just hope that students get out at least some of what went in!

More about the book here.


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