Tag Archives: COBUILD English Usage

COBUILD English Usage 4th Edition: Changes in vocabulary and grammar

In the second of our blog posts about the new edition of COBUILD English Usage, Penny Hands details some of the findings that came out of the team’s research into the ways in which new words and uses are created.

The second stage of the COBUILD English Usage update involved a survey of the current state of various aspects of the English language. It was carried out specially for this edition using the constantly updated Collins Corpus, as well as social media research and crowdsourcing.

It’s all very well having billions of words of corpus, but how do you find new words in it? It’s for this reason that a linguist’s job is a 24-hour one, constantly on the lookout for new words and uses. Corpora allow us to track these changes and to look for different ways that they are used, and to establish who uses them and in what context.

One really useful source of data is the Language Observatory Group (LOG) facebook page, set up by Mike McCarthy, where members add their observations about changes in the language.

The aim is not to gripe about ‘annoying’ things we hear people say, but some members care about that happening more than others. Mike has a certain refreshing tolerance for people expressing their preference for, or dislike of, certain neologisms, taking the view that a lot of fashions in clothes, music, etc, seemed odd or silly when they came out (and then do again when we look back on them).

New words are created all the time, often coming into the language via younger people. Occasionally we see a completely new word appear apparently from nowhere; more often, though, new words come about by people recycling existing ones so that they are used in a slightly different way.

The resulting findings hopefully provide a handy reference guide to new words and uses, but they also represent a fascinating snapshot of today’s society with all its attitudes and preoccupations.

Comparing the Bank of English section of the Collins Corpus with the ‘New Monitor’ corpus (which contains recent material from news and social media websites), we explored the ways in which language has evolved, looking at content from social media sites and news articles produced over the last 10 years.

Firstly, based on data from Collins’ new words database, we looked at some of the most popular ways of creating new language.

Common ways of doing this include adding a prefix or a suffix to an existing word, combining words, or using words in new ways, perhaps by giving them a new function or part of speech.

So the first thing we did was to follow up some hunches we had about new-word creation. As predicted, a lot of the new words we were seeing coming through in our dictionary department were ones created from existing words, combined with prefixes and suffixes.

Here are some of the most prominent innovations that came up in our survey of the current state of the language.

Prefixes

Common examples were:

crowd

crowdsourcing

crowdlending

crowdwritten

crowdworking

crowdfinancing

crowdsharing

upand down

upthread, upvote, uptick

downthread, downvote

Suffixes

Common examples were:

-less cashless, contactless, driverless, paperless

free traffic-free, GMO-free, carbon-free, meat-free, lactose-free

Verbing

This one was flagged up among others on the LOG facebook page by Gavin Dudeney, who spotted the use of ‘sciencing’ on Radio 4.

The new probe is due to touch down on Mars soon and will be ‘sciencing’ as soon as it does.

This observation led us to investigate the current craze for verbing.

What we found, on investigating the social media sections of the Collins corpus, was a multitude of verbs based on brands.

Brand names have always been a rich source of verbing – hoovering, xeroxing, googling – but they seem to be proliferating in our current climate. I wonder if that’s because of the way that we all feel part of the action – we have agency over what gets bought and sold on these sites.

Why are you asking this here when you can just google the answer?

Jen snapchatted the whole thing.

Now we usually netflix it or chill at home with some good food.

We also found plentiful examples of airbnbing, eBaying, Instagramming and Ubering.

Adjectives as nouns

The next tendency we investigated was the sudden increase we had noticed in the use of adjectives as nouns.

Spread the happy. (Nutella®)

Committed to great since ’78. (Ben & Jerry’s®)

Find your fabulous.

And, by extension, a HarperCollins book …

‘Because’ as a preposition

Finally, we observed the repurposing of because as a preposition:

Why bother discussing this? Because language.

Not bothering with this. Because lazy.

Not going out tonight. Because working.

Here’s a snapshot of the concordance for ‘Because language’:

Note the line from the 2018 social media corpus containing the acronym ‘nsfw’, which stands for ‘not safe for work’, often used as a warning for an email subject line or social media post when sharing a link to potentially inappropriate content:

‘… hilarious nsfw because language.’

See also below a Twitter user’s use of ‘Because’ + adjective:

Note the use of a full stop to create a pause for emphasis.

Finally, if you’re interested in looking into this type of research further, take a look at Jack Grieve’s inaugural lecture, ‘The Future of Language Change’ at the University of Birmingham in December, 2018.

Professor Grieve shows how the study of language change is fast becoming a data science, and demonstrates what can be done with social media and high-level analysis tools.

He shows a series of graphs to demonstrate how we can now track usage from its initial use on social media and its exact location. We can see on what days certain words are typically used, where a brand-new coinage starts, and its pattern of diffusion over time. We can even home in on a particular city or neighbourhood, and see in which district a word emerges.

In the past, linguists used to say that you can never know where a word started because you’re not there to notice them. But now that isn’t true, at least for language used on social media. Language change research is making huge strides – and we’re the lucky ones who are here to see it.

COBUILD English Usage 4th Edition: updating the examples

In the first of our blog posts about the new edition of COBUILD English Usage, Penny Hands details some of the changes she made to the examples to ensure they reflect changes in society, and ponders on how future-proof these changes are likely to be.

One of our aims for this edition was to have a really close look at the example sentences, as our hunch was that society has changed so dramatically since the last overhaul that there would be work to do bringing things up to date.

Looking back at the brief for the last edition in 2011, I see that we were worried about authentic examples being too complex – a common criticism levelled at the COBUILD range in its earlier years, and which we were still ironing out.

As I was going through the examples, I took notes and categorised the outdated material. This would help us, I hoped, identify areas to focus on when we formulated new topic pages. These would be added to the resource to guide students and teachers in various aspects of language use that might have changed in the last ten years.

Here are the categories into which the outdated examples I identified sorted themselves:

  • technology
  • women
  • old-fashioned language
  • toilets
  • American English/British English

Technology

Unsurprisingly, in the area of technology, we found a large number of examples that needed to be changed. For example:

Some tech items, such as tape recorder and portable computer were obviously outdated, but others seemed to be just starting to look anachronistic because they related to things we do less and less often.

Since one of the aims of the update was to future-proof the book to an extent, I used my gut feeling to make interventions where they might not seem to be altogether essential at the moment. Examples of such amendments were as follows (underlining shows which word was being illustrated by the example sentence):

  • Is there a phone anywhere? I changed this to: Is there a place to eat anywhere round here? as asking casually for a phone didn’t seem to be something we would need to do very much these days.
  • You can take money out at any branch of your own bank. I changed this to: You can take money out at any cash machine.*
  • I’ll take my phone with me. I changed this to: I’ll keep my phone switched on because most people always take their phone with them; sometimes, though, we do turn our phones off, for example, if we’re in the cinema.
  • clock/radio à singer/songwriter (to illustrate the of use of the forward slash)
  • When you get your daily paper, which page do you read first? I changed this to: When you start up your computer, which application do you go to first?

* By the next edition, money in the form of notes – and as a result, cash machines – may well be on their way out, but I did feel that cash machines are still common enough to warrant a mention.

Women

I found numerous references to women that, while not necessarily offensive, were just starting to make me flinch a bit. In the following examples, the replacement material is shown after the arrow.

  • … three beautiful young girls à … three adventurous young girls
  • I think a woman has as much right to work as a man. à I think a child has as much right to respect as an adult.
  • He arrived accompanied by his wife. à Children under 14 must be accompanied by an adult.
  • These days more women become managers. à These days friends tend to send messages rather than call each other.
  • She’s over 40 but she still dresses like a teenager. à The organisers advised people to dress appropriately.
  • Every businesswoman would have a secretary if she could. à Every pregnant woman wants the best care she can get.
  • Women must have equal status. à All citizens must have equal status.

Looking at the way I updated the examples referring to women gave me pause: I had frequently replaced woman/women with child/children. This prompted me to consider how things are changing from a hierarchical point of view. When we come to our next round of updates, will the examples with child no longer be acceptable? What will I need to replace them with next?

Old-fashioned language

The next category that came out of the analysis was that of ‘old-fashioned language’. Here are some of the words and phrases that jumped out.

American English/British English

Then there were the inevitable items that were labelled as Americanisms, which can hardly be referred to as such any more.

References to lavatories, ladies’ and gents’, air travel being ‘easy these days’, newsagents, letters, and an ‘Indian gentleman’ also all got reworded or expunged from the text.

So, what will future updates bring?

Much as I’ve tried to future-proof the examples, I’m going to make a perhaps rather rash prediction that all my new examples with children will have to be thrown out in ten years’ time, with dogs taking their place. But even then, anyone who has watched the TV programme ‘Supervet’, or the equivalent in their own country, and observed the status of the pet in many families, will have doubts about even that. Robot-servants, maybe?