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What to do when you're not sure about how to use a word

Have you ever been in a situation when you have several alternatives for what you want to say in a second language but you are still not entirely sure which one to use?

A lot of times, people find that they have several alternatives for what they want to say, and are not sure which one to choose for a particular situation.

The good news for language learners is that its getting easier and easier to check exactly how to use a word correctly. Tools like corpora are becoming increasingly user-friendly and can be extremely useful for this. A corpus is a large set of linguistic data drawn from a particular area. This might be scientific journals, newspapers, novels, annual reports, or even conversation transcripts. To run a check on a corpus, simply write in your search term (go/salt/timely) and the corpus will show you the top 50 examples of this word in context. This means that one can easily read through and see not just the word, but the words which are most likely to surround it. One can also view the source details for the examples to see if a word is more likely to appear in a certain area of communication (technical/formal/conversational) or area of interest (scientific/literary/business). This is particularly interesting for translators who wish to confirm that a word is used in a certain context, or with a certain preposition etc. Language learners can use it to collect nice examples for certain words. One can get a good cross section of phrasal verbs in use for instance. Even in the classroom, if a teacher and student are struggling to find more examples to model a word, it is most useful to be able to pull up countless examples with ease.

Each corpus has it's own shortcuts; these can help if you want to run a search not just for a verb, but for a verb in all it's forms.

They are very useful when you want to see

How words are most often used
The difference in frequency of use between a noun and a verb
The language which surrounds a word
The register of a word - are you more likely to find it in a scientific journal, newspaper, novel

You can have some fun with corpus searching today by using one of the multitude of free corpora out there. Some of the best ones are:

BNC

Enron

$25p/h

Benjamin M.

Online Business English tutor / IELTS trainer with 12 years experience

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