Learn how to use vocabulary words

It is one thing to know the meaning of a word. It is another thing to know how to use the word in a sentence.

Think about synonyms – words that mean the same thing. For example,

gaze ◄ ► look

construct ◄ ► build

Which word do you choose? When do you choose it?

This article will tell you how to use a linguistic tool called a corpus to gain a deeper knowledge for words. This tool will help you:

  • Learn vocabulary in context
  • Learn vocabulary with examples
  • Understand the subtle (hard to see) meanings of words
  • Learn how to choose between two words that mean the same thing
  • Learn which words go with other words (collocations, or word chunking)
  • Improve your overall vocabulary and understanding of English

What is a corpus?

The word corpus comes from the Latin and it means body. Body usually refers to a person’s physical body, but it can also mean a collection of things, such as body of literature (books related to a similar theme) or body of work (all the work, usually art or writing, that a person has made). A linguistic corpus is a body of words. By collecting huge amounts of words from newspapers, magazines, blogs, novels, and non-fiction books, linguists can study language by analyzing the corpus using computer programs.

The corpus used in this article is called the Corpus of Contemporary American English, or COCA. It was created by Mark Davies of Brigham Young University and it contains over 560 million words.

To get started, go to https://www.english-corpora.org/coca/. You will need to create a free account and log in. (For a free account, you can perform searches but sometimes you have to wait or read a message asking you to upgrade.)

Search for a word

When you are logged in, go to the main Search screen.

Enter a word, such as gaze, and click “Find matching strings.” This brings up the result screen.

The word was found! Here you can also see the “Frequency” of the word, 15,141. This means that in the corpus of 560 million words, gaze was seen over 15,000 times. (The most common word in English, the, has a frequency of 30,890,521.)

For comparison, tap again on the Search tab and and enter look.

Now you can see that this word is much more common; it appears in the corpus 360,912 times.

**Tip** – if there are two words that mean the same thing and you aren't sure which one to use, picking the more frequent word is usually a safe choice!!!

Comparing two words

We know that gaze and look have similar meanings. How are they different? Return to the search tab, click on Compare, and enter look and gaze.

Click Compare words to see the results.

This screen compares the most common words that are seen with each word. Quickly you can see some differences. Words used with gaze such as locked, narrowed, averted, drifted, lingered, etc. are verbs (or adjectives made from verbs) which describe what is happening with the gaze. In contrast, words like evidence, facts, polls, problems, etc. are used with look. So if you want to focus on what is being looked at, use look. If you want to focus on the manner of looking, use gaze.

Studying collocates

One of the great things about COCA is that you can study collocates for a word, and see how they are used frequently in language. (Collocates are words that frequently are used together.)

Go back to the search screen and click on Collocates, type in build, then click Find collocates. Here is the screen that comes up.

The most common collocates are common function words and punctuation. This isn’t very helpful, so go back to the Search screen and enter build [n]. This will find the nouns which usually collocate with build.

This gives a more informative list. You can go even deeper by picking a few words, such as help, bridges, houses, schools, and checking the box next to the word and clicking Context.

This is where the corpus becomes very powerful. You can see the words in real sentences, and also see where the sentence came from. The left side of the screen shows the genre (such as newspaper, academic, magazine, or spoken). Studying these example sentences, especially for commonly used phrases, will help your English skills become more fluent and native-like.

For comparison, search for collocations for construct [n].

Words like validity, evidence, knowledge, and so forth show a strong difference from words which collocate with build. Build is used with physical things (bridges, roads, houses) and personal things (family, relationships). Construct, on the other hand, is used with abstract concepts and language that is more academic.

As before, you can click on the words (or mark the words you are interested in) to see the collocations in context. You can also look for specific collocations. For example, is it more native-like to say “construct vocabulary” or “build vocabulary?”

First, search collocates for construct:


These words only appear together two times in the corpus! How about build and vocabulary:

These occur together 24 times, and you can click on vocabulary to see the results.

Building a strong vocabulary is an important part of your growing your language skills. It is important to know the meaning of words, but studying how words are used in native speech – how words collocate or “chunk” with other words, what kinds of contexts they are used in, how common they are – will help you get to the next level in English.

When you learn new words, one way to help remember them is to learn synonyms of the words. This tells you how the words are the same. The COCA tool is a way to go further and find out how the words are different.

by Heidi Brumbaugh, PhD

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