Saturday, March 3, 2007

Common and uncommon words

By Dick Tibbetts, University of Macau, China

One teacher said, “My general advice to students is to avoid obscure words that tend to blur communication.”

Trouble is that their dictionary doesn't often tell them how obscure the word is. ‘Pullulate’ is a word that all avid H. P. Lovecraft fans will know and love. In his horror stories, Lovecraft could never avoid a pullulating seething mass or indeed an ululating mob of strange frog-like beings.

However much you try and explain that language is not like COBOL Chinese students seem to feel that all words have a clear one to one correspondence with words in Chinese and that words are for transmitting information not attitude.

This is why I'm pushing the concordancing with my students. They can see right away if the word is uncommon as only a few examples are thrown up, and with the aid of a dictionary for basic meaning and the examples in front of them they can see shades of meaning, common collocations, whether the word is commonly used with negative or positive connotation and a host of other usage features.

You can't do it all the time as it's too consuming but when a word catches a student's fancy, the concordancer is a good way to see how it's used.

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