Tutors, has a student ever asked you the definition of a word that you didn’t know? Or maybe you knew it but couldn’t explain the meaning? And students, have you ever known the definition of a word but weren’t quite sure how to use it in a sentence?
There is an incredible online resource that can help you with these problems. The Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) is a database of hundreds of millions of words. The words are collected from five genres—speech, academic, magazines, newspaper, and fiction—over the course of the last eleven years—1990-2011. Because these words are gathered from naturally occurring sources like recorded dialogue and popular books, they show how people actually write and speak.
By using this corpus, you can find answers to questions like
- What are the most frequent words and phrases in English?
- What are the differences between spoken and written English?
- What tenses do people use most frequently?
- What prepositions follow particular verbs?
- Which words are used in more formal situations and which are used in more informal ones?
- What are popular slang words in 2011 versus in 1995?
Sounds too good to be true? Check out this example and see for yourself!:
The words surrounding a word can often be more informative than its definition. That is to say, you can tell a lot about the meaning of a word by the words that “hang out” by it (the same as with people!). “Collocate” is the name for those surrounding words. For example, check out this search for the most common nouns near thick. These results show that “thick” is used in many more ways than to just mean “wide.”
COCA has other uses beyond answering these questions. If you are interested in the more advanced searches like lemmas and complex verb constructions, the website provides directions, examples, and step-by-step tutorials to help. COCA might look complicated or intimidating at first, but there is a lot of help available. You’ll catch on in no time.
As you can see, this corpus goes far beyond the typical “definition” given in a dictionary or thesaurus. Usually corpora are available only to specialized scholars at a very high fee. Now you don’t need to let the linguists have all the fun when you take advantage of this incredible online resource!