Poles apart


While running a first year workshop on prescriptive and descriptive grammar teaching yesterday, I decided to introduce the group to corpora. I had recently seen an excellent presentation by BALEAP poster award winner (2015) Debbie Haile on the use of corpora in the classroom at a conference and wanted to communicate the idea that grammar doesn’t always come from books. It would also provide a convenient break in the pace of the lesson.
One of the richest and most multi-functioned corpora is the Corpus of Contemporary American English (COCA). Not only can it’s 450,000,000 word database be searched for texts at different registers e.g. from Harpers Bazaar and Country Living to the Smithsonian and various academic journals, but is can also allow lemmatised and unlemmatised searches, wild cards and filters to be used very easily. In short, I considered it to be a great introduction for my students.
After searching requests from the group like ‘ostrich’ and ‘banana’, I revisited some of the lexical relationships we had reviewed at the start of the class. I wanted to demonstrate the power of corpora in indicating the usage of homonyms. One student came up with ‘pole’ as a possible homonym and I was satisfied that they had understood the previous class. The corpus came up with curtain pole, magnetic pole, North pole and pole cat. The students were now able to see the grammar of English in a real context and ergo, a much less prescribed way. A triumphant moment for education, only marred by the last example that I was blissfully unaware had remained on the screen while I was still enthusing about the use of corpora:
…it should be remembered that when pole dancing, it is courteous to wipe the pole after use…