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What makes a good dictionary example?

In this step, we ask you to evaluate some sentences from a corpus in terms of their usefulness and suitability as example sentences in a dictionary.

The definition of a word in a dictionary is often complemented by one or more example sentences. Examples can be very helpful in clarifying what the definition says about a word’s meaning, and in showing how a word is normally used – what kinds of context it tends to appear in, how it functions grammatically, and which other words often appear alongside it. In a historical dictionary like the OED, the examples will be exact quotations (usually known as ‘citations’) from a particular book, journal, etc., and the source of the citation will be given. But this is a special case. In mainstream lexicography, examples are typically derived from the corpus which underpins the dictionary.

Selecting appropriate examples from a corpus is a time-consuming task for lexicographers. However, what if it could be automated? Before we can program a corpus-querying system to find good examples, we need to have a clear understanding of what makes an example ‘good’.

Here are three important characteristics of a ‘good’ example:

  • It should be easy to understand: so, for example, it should try to avoid rare or difficult vocabulary.

  • It shouldn’t be too long: it isn’t reasonable to expect a user to read a long and complex sentence in order to get the point.

  • It should illustrate the word in a context which corpus evidence tells us is typical of the way the word is normally used and the way it normally combines with other words.

Your task

The downloadable PDF titled ‘What makes a good dictionary example?’ shows eight sentences. These sentences are taken from the British National Corpus, and they all contain the word ‘demonstrate’ (when it means to show or prove something).

Your task is to decide whether or not each sentence would be suitable as a dictionary example, and to explain the reasons for your decision, with reference to the three criteria listed in the bullets above.

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This article is from the free online course:

Understanding English Dictionaries

Coventry University