The occasional ramblings of a freelance lexicographer

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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