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Word sketches

Learn about word sketches and why they are important in lexicography.
© Barbara McGillivray. CC BY-NC 4.0

We have seen examples of concordance lines from corpora, and we have appreciated the role played by annotation in helping lexicographers to find relevant patterns and discover unexpected phenomena.

Here we will introduce you to two concepts which take the potential of annotated corpora to the next level for lexicography: ‘collocations’ (which you have already seen in Week 2) and ‘word sketches’.

When trying to understand the meaning of a word or how it is used, it can be very helpful to look at the other words it tends to occur with. These words are called ‘collocates’ of the word. Common, but not necessarily predictable, combinations like ‘narrow escape’, ‘highly intelligent’, and ‘make a decision’ are typical examples of collocations.

As you might have noticed from the examples above, a word’s collocates can be grouped into different sets depending on the type of grammatical relation to the word. For example, for a noun like ‘team’ we can think of the verbs that have ‘team’ as their object and come up with examples such as ’lead’ (‘She leads a team of 120 people’), ‘head’ (‘The teams are headed by Dr Smith’), or ‘join’ (‘They joined the last team’). On the other hand, we can consider the nouns that modify ‘team’, such as ‘football’ (‘My favourite football team is Manchester United’) or ‘research’ (‘Our research team has five postdocs’).

A ‘word sketch’ shows a word’s collocates grouped by the type of grammatical relation they have with it. Thanks to this way of organising collocates, word sketches are extremely useful to lexicographers, because they save them the time to look through thousands of heterogeneous corpus examples.

What you can see below is a portion of the word sketch for the noun ‘challenge’ in the British National Corpus, please note that the site will currently appear slightly different to the screen image still below as the website has recently been upgraded.

Screen shot taken from the sketch engine website of a word sketch showing the word challenge Word Sketch screenshot of the word challenge, with permission from Lexical Computing CZ s.r.o.

Word Sketches are a defining feature of Sketch Engine, a corpus query tool widely used in lexicography that you were introduced to earlier (see Step 3.9). In the next activity, you will have a chance to try out this tool and see what you can discover about a word that you might have not known before.

Further reading

This page on the Sketch Engine web site has a useful summary of what ‘word sketches’ are and how you can create one.

This 10th anniversary research paper about Sketch Engine is a helpful description of the tool’s core functions and its innovations.

© Barbara McGillivray. CC BY-NC 4.0
This article is from the free online

Understanding English Dictionaries

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