Upgrading my writing skills

img_20151002_082919The other day I was reading somebody’s blog post when I realized that there are certain words I never use when I write. The word that first caught my attention was whereby. I went over to my blog and used the search button to see if I had ever used this vocabulary item in any of my posts. At that point, my blog turned into a little corpus for a while.

My suspicion was confirmed – no hits whatsoever. So I started playing with some other words for the sake of comparison. As it turned out, I have my favorites and there are words which I know but constantly avoid using.

Why is it so? Well, to be honest, I often catch myself circumventing expressions I’m not absolutely sure about. Obviously, coming up with an alternative is just a safe way out but doesn’t result in much learning.

So, I’m up to a little experiment. From now on I’m going to have a list of words I wish to incorporate into my writing always near my laptop. These items will be anything interesting I come across while reading stuff – single words, collocations, or grammatical structures. I know all too well that just jotting something down into a notepad and staring at it won’t necessarily enrich my writing. So I will only allow myself to cross a word off of the list once I’ve actually used it.

If this strategy works for me, I’ll recommend it to my students as well.


Uncovering linguistic layers

From time to time a student composing an essay asks: “Shall I write in the street or on the street?”  As I don’t want to disturb the others by long lectures on prepositions, I usually say: “You can use both. Just choose”. I know it’s not quite accurate but I don’t think it’s a big deal either, at least at lower levels of proficiency.

As far as I remember, the way I learned this piece of lexicogrammar at school was something along the lines: in the street is mainly used in British English and be on the street(s) means be homeless. Let’s have a closer look.

First of all, it seems that there is some difference between the phrase including a singular noun (street) and the phrase including a plural form of the noun.

Regarding the phrases including the singular form of the noun, in the street, according to the first graph below, was more frequent till about 1980 but then on the street, which, by the way, was almost non-existent back in 1800, started winning the race. I learned this by checking out Google Ngram Viewer (thanks, Sandy Millin, for sharing this). Anyway, after a rather sharp decline around 1945, a sudden increase in the use of on the street can be seen, precisely around 1965. One wonders why; has the issue of homelessness become more pressing recently ?


Now, looking at the phrase including the plural form of the noun, I can see that in the streets has consistently been more frequent than one the streets. Like on the street, on the streets was almost non-existent in 1800 (see the second graph 2 below).


If you look at some concordance lines of the chunk on the street(s), you will discover that, indeed, it is often related to homelessness.

  • She spends several years on the streets.
  • To fear being thrown on the street?
  • The average person on the street are not scientists
  • She was better off on the streets.
  • Will they sleep on the streets tonight?
  • A young girl who lives on the streets.

Things shift a bit if you add a little function word, though. If you search the phrase in the streets *of*, the most frequent right collocates are usually (and quite obviously) places/towns. The same happens with on the streets *of*. When studying the concordance lines, I didn’t discover any difference in connotation between these two chunks other than the number of hits per million. The chunk on the streets *of* is more frequent than in the streets *of*.


What is interesting though is that the preposition *of* strips the phrase on the streets of its exclusivity related to the connotation of homelessness. In other words, it seems to me that it brings closer the connotations of in the streets and on the streets, i.e. the preposition simply doesn’t matter anymore.

I can’t help feeling that I’m only moving on the surface of the problem and that there’s much more behind it. Some of my conclusions may even be inaccurate and incomplete. Still, it’s a great adventure to slowly uncover the linguistic layers. What’s more, I’m learning a lot along the way.

Small things matter – some insights from a conference

20160423_121915On Saturday, I went to another ELT conference here in the Czech Republic. I saw two outstanding plenary speeches and attended three workshops, of which I probably liked most the one done by Hana Babincova.

Now I wonder why this particular experience was so refreshing. In other words, what are the essential ingredients of a successful workshop? I’ve decided to write this up partly because I think it will help me improve my regular teaching. Here are some of my insights:

When I entered the room about ten minutes before the workshop started, the windows were wide open and it was freezing in there. Having spotted the attendees’ desperate expressions, Hana quickly explained that she had opened the windows to let some fresh air in (I sometimes use this euphemism to actually say ‘Sorry but it was terribly smelly in here’). 🙂 Anyway, this was a good move I think since later on, it didn’t get stuffy but pleasantly warm.

Hana had prepared some of the board work in advance so upon entering the room we could easily predict what the workshop was going to be about. In more sophisticated words, we could already activate our schemata. However, I later realized that she hadn’t given it all away, which was clever of her.

I was particularly pleased by the seating arrangement Hana had chosen – two desks pressed together for us to sit in groups of four, i.e. two pairs facing each other. Thus I had plenty of space for myself (unlike during the previous workshop when we were sitting in a horseshoe arrangement without desks and as it was quite a small room, I was literally squeezed between two other participants).

The number of the attendees was reasonable; I don’t feel very comfortable when the room is crammed as I tend to feel claustrophobic. However, a small number of participants would make me feel uncomfortable as well, probably because I’d fear that the group dynamic may suffer a bit.

The topic of Hana’s workshop was Flash Fiction, which is virtually my cup of tea. During the hands-on activities, I was cooperating with two other ladies, both of whom were very friendly and communicative. Having enthusiastic people around is another aspect which makes any workshop a successful event. Sadly, this is something beyond the presenter’s control so I can say I was lucky.

The content of the workshop was engaging plus the timing of the activities was perfect; we had plenty of time to complete all the assigned tasks (which is not always the case). Hana was patiently eliciting ideas and we ended up sharing some truly original interpretations. There are no wrong answers is a strategy I like.

Apart from the presenter (or teacher) being well-prepared, intuitive and spontaneous, I think there are other little ingredients which can positively affect the quality of an event, such as a suitable time of the day, the quality of the previous workshop (class), i.e. how high (or low?) the metaphorical bar is, how enthusiastic the participants (students) are, etc.

All in all, throughout this workshop, I didn’t feel the need to look at my watch and when it was over, I caught myself disappointed by the fact that time had flown so quickly. 🙂


Apparently, my blog has recently turned into a diary where I’ve been recording and sharing some of my corpora-related observations.

Here’s another anecdote in the series of posts: Yesterday, in class, we dealt with adjectives of feeling and emotions and the prepositions they take, such as angry with, depressed about, proud of, etcetera. As you know, some adjectives are quite tricky since they can take more than one preposition while the meaning stays roughly the same. One of the notorious ‘troublemakers’ is, for example, the word disappointed. 


I mentioned to my class that this adjective is usually followed by with, by or in. One of my students curiously searched the internet to finally confirm my conclusion. He came up with this page, which explains the slight shifts in meaning when different prepositions are used.


Disappointed by usually indicates that somebody has done something specific to cause you to be disappointed.

Disappointed with implies that the cause of the disappointment was something basic about the nature or attributes of the thing.

Disappointed in usually indicates a deeper level of disappointment with the nature of somebody or something, or repeated problems with them, and often indicates that the speaker has lost faith in someone’s ability to do what’s expected of them.

Although the author did his/her best to help the puzzled learner, it’s still a bit complicated, at least for a B1/B2 learner of English. So I’ve tried to figure it out for myself by looking at sets of concordance lines in BNC. Here are the most frequent collocates of the phrase disappointed + by/with/in (from the perspective of the MI index):

1) One can be disappointed by (the) lack of sth., failure, response, elections, results, decision 

2) One can be disappointed with results, players, performance, result, (the) lack of sth., decision, way

3) One can be disappointed in one’s expectation, love, (not) having …, me, you, him, her …

A closer scrutiny of the concordance lines prompts the following conclusion:

  • No1 > some external factor/situation caused my feelings of disappointment.
  • No2 > I’m not happy with the quality/state of something. Note: It seems that no1 and no2 can be used interchangeably with certain collocates with the meanings remaining very close.
  • No3 > a way to express disillusion or reproach.



Corpora as Spell Check tools?

Are there any words you tend to spell incorrectly whenever you use them in writing? What spellchecks do you use and which ones would you recommend to your students (if any)? And finally, do you think you can use a corpus as a spellchecking tool?

I’ll show you in a minute that it’s not really a good idea. Corpora can come in handy in many situations but not as a tool to check spelling, I think.

I personally have several pet-hates, i.e. words that make my spellcheckers busy. So, the other day, I opened the enTenTen08 corpus (the largest English corpus in Sketch Engine) to see if these are some of the commonly misspelled words. Apparently, they are!

  • recieve > 7, 047 hits vs. receive > 1, 107, 499 hits
  • managable > 236 hits vs. manageable > 8, 287 hits
  • noticable > 1, 009 hits vs. noticeable > 15, 330 hits
  • prestigeous >  97 hits vs. prestigious > 25, 045 hits
  • liason > 516 hits vs. liaison > 24, 430 hits
  • medeival 43 hits vs. medieval > 52, 271 hits
  • ocassionally > 183 hits vs. occasionally : 1, 035 hits
  • privilige > 78 hits vs. privilege > 85, 0890

When you use Google, for example, and type in the word noticable, you’ll immediately be notified of your error and offered the correct version.


This doesn’t happen when you use a corpus, though. When you type something in, you’ll usually get some results (unless it’s a totally nonsensical word) because any corpus is just a collection of language people use.

Now, I asked myself how this can be turned into an advantage in class. Certainly, you can boost your students’ confidence by showing them the incorrect example sentences. You can show them they are not alone in this; people all around the world make mistakes -simply because there are tricky words.

As the second step, you can get them to use/create some mnemonic strategies to remember the correct version of a tricky word: Why receive and not recieve? “I before E, except after C” is a mnemonic rule of thumb for English spelling. If one is unsure whether a word is spelled with the sequence ei or ie, the rhyme suggests that the correct order is ie unless the preceding letter is c, in which case it is ei.

You can make unusual exercises and tests too. Instead of asking Ss to choose the  *correct* alternative, ask them to choose the more frequent one; they can do so by matching the number of hits with the appropriate spelling version.

  1. recieve                                  a) 7, 047 hits
  2. receive                                  b) 1, 107, 499 hits

answer: 1a, 2b

Alternativelly, you can ask questions like: Why does recieve only get 7, 047 hits in the corpus? Answer: because it’s spelled incorrectly. The correct spelling is ……

This, I believe, draws attention to the fact that 1) there is something like corpora at all, 2) there are words which many users of English find tricky (and you can discuss why).

In conclusion, you can get a lot of mileage out of the errors your students make and there are many ways to do so.

Any other ideas for exploiting corpora in relation to spelling?

When inner sight gets in the way

I have a quick question regarding pronunciation (and more).

Problem: Czech students often struggle to pronounce the /v/ and /w/ sounds correctly. More precisely, they tend to use them interchangeably, i.e. sometimes they pronounce village as [ˈwɪlɪdʒ] and window as [ˈvɪndəʊ].


Background: It’s not really surprising as in Czech, the /w/ sound is not present at all – at least at the beginning of a word. Although we do have words beginning with w, those are vocabulary items borrowed from other languages, such as English or German (Windows > [ˈvɪndous], BMW > [be:emˈve:]), which, as you can judge by my phonetic transcription, are pronounced with the /v/ sound rather than the /w/ sound.

By no means do I think the problem above is unique to speakers of my mother tongue. Naturally, most L2 struggle to get all the novel sounds right. However, earlier today, something happened which made me ponder this issue in more depth. I was talking to my students so fast that at one point, I failed to round my lips to make the correct /w/ sound and I produced the /v/ sound instead. I realized it immediately and managed to correct myself before the word actually came out of my mouth, but it happened in my head (?) anyway.

Interpretation: My train of thought is this: 1) We don’t have the /w/ sound in Czech and there’s no distinction between w and v in terms of pronunciation, that’s why /v/ sometimes gets in the way. 2) As someone who started learning English back in the late 1980s, as late as at the age of 14, I *saw* most words before I *heard* them. Thus, perhaps, when speaking, I still use my inner sight to some extent. So, when I say window, I probably visualize the word for a fleeting moment before I make a conscious effort to produce the correct sound. In other words, what I have to say is not consistent with ‘what I see’. By the same token, as native speakers of English usually *hear* the language before they *see* it written down, there’s no such collision between the spoken and the written form of a word. So village is simply [ˈvɪlɪdʒ] and window is plain [ˈwɪndəʊ] because that’s how the sounds are ingrained in their aural minds. They might face a problem when writing the words down, but that’s another issue….

Question: What I’d like to ask now is not whether non-native speakers of English face a similar problem (I suspect they do), but I’m curious to know if native speakers ever experience the discrepancy I described (in very layman’s terms).

My little linguistic discovery

I think I’ve mentioned here on my blog that I find great pleasure in discovering things about the English language. Now that I’ve started the CORPUS LINGUISTICS: METHOD, ANALYSIS, INTERPRETATION Moodle course, I like to play with corpora, and particularly with my SketchEngine, even more than I did before.

My passion is often fuelled by what happens in class. Today, for example, we played with the word hesitate and my students came up with hesitatingly. I added another adverb they could derive from hesitate hesitantly. I thought hesitatingly and hesitantly were very similar in meaning but I couldn’t say what the difference was because the translations are roughly the same. So I checked with the British National Corpus and started searching. I found that hesitatingly is much less frequent than hesitantly, but I was particularly curious to see what one can *do* hesitantly and hesitatingly.

I found hesitantly in the company of the following verbs: said, began, asked, spoke, murmured, suggested, whispered, queried, agreed, entered, continued, walked … hesitantly.

Hesitatingly appeared with the following verbs: said, described, peered, explains, told a story, accepted … hesitatingly. 

What struck me immediately was that as a general rule, both adverbs appear before or after verbs in the simple past narrative (these are often found in stories and descriptions of past events, such as personal anecdotes). In other words, and in laymen’s terms, neither of the adverbs is seen around will, would or have +past participle, for example.

It may seem quite insignificant and pointless, but I still consider it my own little linguistic discovery and I hope to make more in the future. 🙂