How to Solve Word Choice Problems through COCA

Objectives: You will be able to...
  • Recognize common sources of word choice problems, such as using wrong forms (wrong spelling or part of speech), style (informal word choice), idiomatic errors (using wrong articles or prepositions for phrasal verbs), collocation errors 
  • Consider various aspects of vocabulary (part of speech, register, spelling, collocation, meaning in context, frequency, synonymy, etc.) when choosing the “right word” to use in academic writing.
  • Use Google, Word and Phrase. Info, Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA) as reference tools when choosing the “right word” to use in academic writing.
  • Recognize important considerations for successful word search using the reference tools above
Task 1: Complete a diagnostic word choice quiz in Part I of Worksheet for ESL 502

Task 2: Solve practice questions in Part 2 and 3 of Worksheet for ESL 502 with COCA (COCA New Interface)
- Good for beginners (user-friendly, dictionary-like interface)
- Fewer number of words than regular COCA (only 120 out of 450 million words of texts)
- Less custom search functions available compared to the regular interface
- Only one line of a text is available to study the context 

- Good for experienced users and researchers with some linguistic background knowledge
- More number of words than Word and Phrase Info
- More custom search functions, such as phrase search, customized wild card search (wild card words with certain part of speech/collocation options, collocation search, synonym search)
- Can read more than one line to study the context -> "Expanded text" function (Click either the year or the genre code to see the expanded text) 
Task 3: Register for free on COCA Website and explore on your own. 

Helpful Resources:

Tips for More Effective COCA Search 
  • For setting up a good search string, choose the right search key word (an anchor word) carefully. Not all adjacent words are relevant for a search (or interpretation of the search). E.g.) if you are looking for a content word that goes into the blank in I hope to ___?___ the goal, you should use the goal as an anchor word (the key word for search) because it determines the kind of the verb you should use in the blank. You should not use hope to as an anchor word.
  • Use a search (word) string that is an appropriate size. If the search string is too short (only one or two words), it is difficult to get a reliable answer quickly. (e.g. using only "implications" as a search word to find the preposition for "implications ___ teaching ESL") If the search string is too long (too specific), it is difficult to find many matching texts. (e.g.  using "implications for teaching ESL")
  • For interpreting the results, Go for MORE FREQUENTLY used phrases. "Hot debate" and "Heated debate" are both possible collocates in English, but "heated debate" is much more commonly used.
  • Always check the CONTEXT and GENRE. It is often dangerous to look at only the frequency count and decide which one to use. Having a higher frequency counts does not always mean both words are possible in a given context. For example, "totally" and "fully" are considered synonyms, but only one of them is desirable in academic English. Also, "received the phone call" and "answer the phone" are both possible/frequent in English, but only one of them would work in a given context.
  • If there is no or few result showing, it happened for one of the following reasons: 1) one of the words could be spelled wrong, or an ungrammatical word or 2) the word combination is impossible or rare.